Congressional Democrats on Thursday wrote a letter to President Joe Biden calling on him to "review and overhaul US counterterrorism policy" as it pertains to drone strikes, expressing grave concerns about civilian casualties.
Airstrikes have dropped markedly under Biden in comparison to President Donald Trump, and the Biden administration has reportedly taken steps to review US drone policy. But an August 29 drone strike in Kabul that killed 10 civilians — including seven children — prompted fierce criticism of the Biden administration and renewed calls for reform. The New York Times released a declassified video of the strike on Wednesday.
In the letter, Democrats said the August strike was "emblematic" of a "systemic failure that has persisted across decades and administrations."
"Without systematic reforms centered on human rights and international law, the status quo will continue to undermine counterterrorism objectives, produce significant human and strategic costs, and erode the rule of law and the United States' image abroad," said the letter, spearheaded by Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Chris Murphy of Connecticut.
"We cannot accept a continuation of the status quo that has repeatedly resulted in the needless deaths of innocent civilians," the letter went on to say. "We strongly urge your Administration to review and overhaul US counterterrorism policy to center human rights and the protection of civilians, align with US and international law, prioritize non-lethal tools to address conflict and fragility, and only use force when it is lawful and as a last resort."
The letter lamented that successive presidents have "have claimed virtually unilateral power to use lethal force around the world and without congressional authorization, killing not only armed actors but also innocent civilians— even American citizens."
Citing figures from Airwars, the letter stated that as many as 48,000 civilians have been killed by US strikes in seven different countries over the past two decades since the global war on terror began. "At least 14,000 US airstrikes have been conducted by unmanned aircraft since 2002, killing as many as 2,200 civilians—including 450 children," the letter added.
Democrats said that the "inexcusable figures," which they noted could be a major undercount due to a lack of transparency from the US government, are a reflection of an "uncomfortable truth: in far too many cases, rather than achieving the policy goal of eliminating hostile combatants to preserve U.S. national security, lethal U.S. strikes have instead killed thousands of civilians, including children."
Eleven senators and 39 members of the House signed the letter, including prominent progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, and Rep. Ro Khanna of California. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Insider.
Murphy in a tweet on the letter said the US "must do better," calling drone strikes that kill civilians "a moral failure and a national security liability."
Activists and critics of US drone policy have long contended strikes that kill civilians essentially serve as a recruiting poster for terrorist groups. Back in 2010, a man named Faisal Shahzad tried and failed to bomb Times Square in New York City. Later, Shahzad cited US drone strikes as his motivation for the failed bombing.
The use of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), in counterterrorism operations by the US began under the Bush administration, but escalated exponentially during the Obama era. Following rampant criticism over his heavy reliance on drones and civilian casualties, President Barack Obama took steps to put safeguards in place to protect civilians. Trump reversed these moves — relaxing the rules of engagement for strikes in Afghanistan back in 2017 — and civilian casualties skyrocketed under his watch.
When Biden withdrew US troops from Afghanistan last summer, hawkish lawmakers in Washington questioned how the US would continue to fight terrorism. Biden said that the US would employ an "over-the-horizon" approach, which effectively involves conducting operations or strikes without boots on the ground. But critics have said the August 29 drone strike in Kabul revealed the flaws in this approach, warning that drone strikes could continue to kill civilians unless Biden changed course.
"I'm definitely concerned that the Biden administration's 'over-the-horizon' approach will result in more civilian casualties, because the accuracy of drone strikes depends heavily on the quality of intelligence, and if the US does not have an actual presence in Afghanistan, it's hard to see how it can determine whether the information it's getting from any supposed partners on the ground is reliable," Daphne Eviatar, Amnesty International USA's director of Security With Human Rights, told Insider in September.