There is probably no foreign policy shift more associated with Barack Obama's presidency than the significant increase in targeted killings by the use of drones. Drones have become a major tool in America's anti-terror arsenal. In Yemen alone, the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have carried out at least 81 targeted killings: one in 2002 and the remainder executed during President Obama's administration.
Despite these numbers, we have never had a real look at the human costs of our drone war, partly because until recently the administration wouldn't even acknowledge the existence of the program.
That's why the Arab American Institute and the UK-based human rights organization Reprieve have worked to add an essential voice to this debate. Faisal bin Ali Jaber, a civil engineer from Yemen, came to Washington this week to meet with members of Congress and administration officials in hope of finding out why a drone strike killed two of his relatives last year. Faisal's brother-in-law Salem and nephew Waleed were killed on August 29, 2012 in the province of Khashamir, less than twenty-four hours after a joyful family wedding.
To add irony to the tragedy of this story, Salem was an influential cleric who had long preached against al-Qaeda's violent ideology; he was one of few in Yemen with both the courage and platform to denounce violent extremism. Waleed was one of the village's police officers, trying to uphold the rule of law in Yemen at a critical time in the country's development. In an open letter to President Obama this August, Faisal wrote, "The Friday before his death, [Salem] gave a guest sermon in the Khashamir mosque denouncing al-Qa'ida's hateful ideology. It was not the first of these sermons, but regrettably, it was his last."
People like Salem and Waleed are essential allies in the fight against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), whose voices the U.S. must work to amplify if we are to have any hope of defeating al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Instead, we are eliminating those voices and empowering AQAP - and providing our enemies with a powerful recruitment tool.
In meeting after meeting with members of Congress, Faisal spoke eloquently about his own experience and the wider effect of civilian drone deaths in Yemen. During a meeting with Congressman Rush Holt (D-NJ), who referred to drones as "dehumanizing" and "a horror beyond regular war," the Congressman asked Faisal what he hoped to accomplish during his trip to Washington. Faisal paused and replied through an interpreter, "Mainly I wanted to ask, - who is responsible for the death of my family, and who can take those drones [out of] our skies."
Since the U.S. has never publicly acknowledged the killing, Faisal doesn't know who the target was, or why his family was killed. He doesn't know whether the U.S. purposefully targeted his family; whether they were "collateral damage" in a strike targeting someone else; or whether the strike was simply a mistake. Faisal's story is no outlier. The reports issued last month by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch tell similarly troubling stories over and over again, in both Pakistan and Yemen. In all of them, innocent civilians are killed without any indication that they were legitimate targets. In many cases, capture by traditional means should have been possible. And of course, just like the death of Salem and Waleed, we must speculate because the U.S. has never explained or taken responsibility for the attacks.
On the last day of his trip, Faisal was granted a meeting with White House officials - the first of its kind - with the very individuals who authored the policy that killed Faisal's relatives.
The U.S. must understand the real price of our tactics, and to weigh whether the targeted killing of undetermined militants is worth the image of civilian deaths becoming the image of America in the world. At the very least, the U.S. must uphold its own standards of due process and offer both recourse and explanation for the killings of civilians. Otherwise, as Faisal can attest, the villagers most affected by drone strikes in Yemen ask what difference it makes whether they are al-Qaeda or not - they will be killed either way.
It is impossible to hear a story like Faisal's without concluding that the use of drones in targeted killing, far from making America safer, simply makes it much harder for us to win this "war." If this is a war at all, it has always been a war for hearts and minds. If the people of Yemen and Pakistan fear us more than they fear al-Qaeda, the long-term effects of this policy will be catastrophic.
Of course, Faisal bin Ali Jaber is far removed from U.S. strategy decisions in Yemen. He simply wants to know for what purpose his family was killed by the U.S. And we think President Obama owes him those answers.