Illustration by Liene Magdalēna

The Terror of American Freedom

There will be no candlelight marches, no media coverage, no TV debates for the 30 civilians killed on September 19th. Why? Because these individuals were not killed by deranged madmen or religious fundamentalists.

Sep 28, 2019

On Sept. 19, at least 30 civilians were killed in one of the most gruesome attacks of the year. There was no frenzied wall-to-wall coverage of the attacks. There were no candlelight marches in solidarity with the victims. There was no retelling of the victims’ hopes, dreams and aspirations, all cruelly put to an end by a horrific act of violence. And there will be no emotional TV debates about policy solutions to ensure that this never happens again. For these individuals were not killed by deranged madmen or religious fundamentalists, but rather by the government of the United States.
The attack came in the form of a drone strike, which was supposed to target Da’esh terrorists in the Afghan province of Nangarhar. Instead, the drone strike killed more than 30 innocent pine nut farmers who had gathered to make a bonfire after a long day at work.
It is easy to dismiss the attack in Nangarhar as a one-off event: one unfortunate consequence of the so-called “War on Terror”. However, such sentiments are very clearly divorced from reality. What happened last week is just another example of how the U.S.-led military intervention destroys civilian life from Somalia to Pakistan. Hospitals are decimated, schools and homes are demolished, entire wedding parties are razed and children are killed for daring to play on the street. Such is the nature of freedom and democracy that the United States claims to bring to the developing world.
While much of the international community has looked away, the situation – especially in Afghanistan – has only worsened. According to a United Nations report, 2019 is shaping up to be an especially bloody year for Afghan civilians as a total of 1366 noncombatants have already been killed in the conflict. Even more shockingly, Afghan and U.S.-led foreign forces have killed more civilians than the Taliban and other militant groups.
Perhaps the cruelest irony is that this upsurge in violence has occurred while the United States and the Taliban were negotiating a peace deal in Qatar. As representatives from both sides broke bread in air-conditioned rooms, their proxies have continued to wage a gruesome war against each other in Afghanistan, mostly at the cost of ordinary civilians. In fact, Donald Trump even invited the Taliban to Camp David, only to cancel when a Taliban-sponsored suicide bombing killed 12 people – including a U.S. American soldier.
Indeed, the Taliban’s attempts to build “false leverage” through terrorist attacks are abhorrent and representative of a dastardly organization that has little regard for human life. However, if the Taliban’s actions are condemnable, then so is the escalation of drone strikes by the U.S. and its allies. At its very heart, NATO’s drone program is immoral, ineffective and only perpetuates the terror that it supposedly seeks to defeat.
Those may seem like harsh words, especially when the U.S. American establishment has attempted to sell the world and its people a fanciful fantasy about the suitability of drone strikes. According to this theory, drone strikes are the most effective way to kill terrorists without risking military casualties. As the Washington Post’s Editorial Board claimed a few years ago, “drones are the least costly means of eliminating militants whose first aim is to kill Americans.”
Such an approach ignores the human cost of attempting to kill terrorists. For example, a study in 2014 by the human rights group Reprieve found that U.S. American attempts to kill 41 terrorists resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1,147 people including at least 142 children. That may not represent a “cost” to the Washington Post Editorial Board, but it certainly should ring an alarm for the rest of us.
Moreover, the effectiveness of drone strikes is rather questionable. By providing short-term setbacks to militant groups, drone strikes let governments ignore the structural issues that have allowed the militants to flourish in the first place. A report by the International Crisis Group found that drone strikes do not solve the “fundamental problem” posed by extremism. As former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel argued back in 2009, drone strikes are like “going after a beehive, one bee at a time.” The problem is that, inevitably, “the hive will always produce more bees.” Moreover, the civilian casualties inflicted by drone strikes only help embolden the cause of terrorists who use the cruelty of the United States as a recruitment tool.
But then again, one does not need to be an expert to conclude that drone strikes are not effective. For if they were, the United States would not still be fighting the longest war in its history.
Regardless of the effectiveness of drone strikes, the manner in which the U.S. government has dealt with civilian casualties is unforgivable. One may argue that civilian casualties are an unfortunate aspect of any conflict. However, any responsible and considerate government would acknowledge these casualties, attempt to minimize them and try to implement some form of restorative justice for the victims. This should be especially true for a country that loves to pontificate about its leadership of the free world.
Instead, the United States is doing the exact opposite. Like with much else, the Trump administration has repeatedly lied about the number of civilians killed in drone strikes. Even more worryingly, it has removed requirements that forced the CIA to disclose all civilian casualties in a publically available report.
But it is unfair to single out the Trump administration when both George W. Bush and Barack Obama embraced drone strikes as a weapon of war. After all, the most preposterous drone-related policy in the United States originates from the Obama administration. As the New York Times reported in 2012, it is the policy of the United States government to classify all military-age males killed or injured in drone strikes as terrorists until proven otherwise. Essentially, the age-old legal maxim of “innocent until proven guilty” has become “innocent until bombed”.
These are not the actions of a responsible government with even the slightest concern for justice. They are the actions of a rogue state that believes it has the impunity to violate the most basic principles of human justice. A state that willingly commits war crimes. A state for which “freedom” and “democracy” are buzzwords only to be applied selectively. A state that fights “terror” by creating its own.
Abhyudaya Tyagi is Features Editor. Email him at
gazelle logo