Senators Warren and Murphy, Rep. Khanna Call on President Biden to Overhaul U.S. Counterterrorism Policy
As many as 48,000 civilians across seven countries have reportedly been killed by U.S. strikes over the past two decades.
“These inexcusable figures reflect 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.”
Washington, D.C. — United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), along with Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism, Representative Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), member of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), and nine other senators and 36 members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to President Biden expressing concern about the United States’ targeting criteria for drone strikes that has led to the deaths of thousands of civilians, with little accountability. In the letter, the lawmakers call on the President to overhaul U.S. counterterrorism policy to center human rights and the protection of civilians, only using lethal force when it is lawful and as a last resort. This letter comes as more details emerge about the botched August 29th strike in Kabul, Afghanistan which led to 10 civilian deaths including seven children and an aid worker employed by an American NGO, as well as the potentially unlawful 2019 strike in Baghuz, Syria, which the military never independently investigated.
“Over successive administrations spanning nearly two decades, presidents have claimed virtually unlimited, 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. 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,” wrote the lawmakers.
In many instances, U.S. drone strikes have led to unintended and deadly consequences. As many as 48,000 civilians across seven countries have reportedly been killed by U.S. strikes over the past two decades. At least 14,000 U.S. airstrikes have been conducted by unmanned aircraft since 2002, killing as many as 2,200 civilians—including 450 children. Alarmingly, the actual numbers are likely significantly higher given the difficulty of comprehensive reporting and the United States’ consistent underreporting of these numbers and reported refusal to investigate reports absent “potential for high media attention.”
“These inexcusable figures reflect 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,” the lawmakers continued.
In the U.S. Senate, this letter was also signed by Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Patrick Leahy D-Vt.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Jeffrey A. Merkley (D-Ore.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). In the U.S. House of Representatives, cosigners include Representatives Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.), Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), Andy Levin (D-Mich.), Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), Judy Chu (D-Calif.), Katie Porter (C-Calif.), Chuy Garcia (D-Ill.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.), Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), Peter Welch (D-Vt.), Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.), Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), and Cori Bush (D-MO), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Susan Wild (D-Penn.), Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Marie Newman (D-Ill.), Karen Bass (D-Cali.), Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), Don Beyer (D-Va.), Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.), John Larson (D-Conn.), and Danny Davis (D-Ill.), Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), and Jamie Raskin (D-Mary.).
Senator Warren has long led the call for accountability for U.S. military operations that kill innocent civilians:
- In November 2021, Senator Warren sent a letter to Senator Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Chairman of SASC, requesting that the Committee launch a formal inquiry to review the findings and implications of a New York Times report detailing how the U.S. military hid an airstrike in Baghuz, Syria that killed dozens of civilians.
- Following the August 29, 2021, unmanned airstrike that killed ten civilians in Afghanistan, Senator Warren and Representative Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) sent a letter to Secretary Austin to use the tragedy of civilian harm to look into the Pentagon’s history of accidentally targeting innocent civilians and significantly under-investigate and undercount civilian casualties.
- In July, Senator Warren and Representative Khanna sent a letter urging Secretary Austin to review why significant undercounts of civilian casualties persist and why DoD made zero ex gratia payments to grieving civilians last year despite authorization and funding from Congress.
- In June 2020, Senator Warren and Representative Ro Khanna introduced the Protection of Civilians in Military Operations Act, bicameral legislation that would enhance reporting on civilian casualties resulting from U.S. military operations, improve investigations into civilian casualties, and strengthen resources for the Department's policies and practices relating to civilian casualty prevention and responses.
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