Transparency, Hostility, and Obama: Drone Warfare in Somalia and Beyond

Muhammad Hudhud, JHU:

Earlier this month, the United States conducted one of the largest air strikes in its 13-year (and counting) involvement in Somalia. The Pentagon noted that both drones and manned aircraft were used to target an Al-Shabaab training camp in Raso, in the southern half of the coastal country. While the training camp was specifically targeted, the Pentagon also maintained that there were no civilian deaths. Not many details have been released on the casualties or the operation as a whole, but the White House announced that it would release “an assessment of combatant and noncombatant casualties resulting from strikes taken outside areas of active hostilities since 2009.” It should be noted that Al-Shabaab is a designated terrorist organization that is based in Somalia that has close ties with Al-Qaeda, and should not be confused with the terrorist organization Boko Haram, an affiliate of Daesh (Arabic acronym for ISIL) that operates out of Nigeria.

Recall when President Obama, in 2013, famously stated that his administration was the ‘most transparent in history.’ Recall that the U.S. is not officially at war with Somalia, and that the ‘use of military force’ in the country is not even sanctioned by Congress. And recall that 90% of casualties from drone attacks in the region were not even the ‘intended targets.’ Yet, in this instance, we do not know anything other than what we, as the American public, have been told by the Obama administration. There isn’t even a detailed reason as to what caused the air strikes to happen. Terrorists who threaten the American people should be dealt with, but the enemy should, at the very least, be clear. One might argue that maintaining American security necessitates a degree of secrecy—this is true. However, when the identities of the casualties of drone strikes are not even known within the confines of government, or when the Obama administration flunks in the very drone policy (and transparency thereof) it promised to reform, it’s a problem. When President Obama not only increases the number of drone strikes ten-fold from his predecessor, but escalates the program into countries the United States is not officially at war at, it’s alarming. When one must rely on whistleblowers alone to consistently get this kind of information, it’s a disservice to the American people.

In researching for this piece, the vast majority of the articles by major outlets I encountered included the same quotes by the same officials from the same government agencies. In turn, one may think that this very piece is lacking in information about the particular incident in Somalia—that is correct! The paltry amount of available information regarding these airstrikes stems from a substantial lack of coverage of the greater African continent on the part of both the mass media and the government. It is the world’s silence and passivity that allow air strikes like these to be reduced to statistics devoid of any identifiers other than the word ‘terrorist.’ We sit and take in the numbers, accepting the deaths of individuals because somebody told us they deserved to die without giving us a specific reason as to why.  When the sporadically mentioned civilian casualty count is identified, we dismiss the number as something to be expected from a ‘war-torn region of the world’—a collateral damage of sorts.

I believe there is a threshold to which our media starts and stops caring for events around the world, whether that threshold is determined by race, religion, socioeconomic status, geography, or other factors. Why are we not seriously inquiring about potential civilian deaths in Somalia? Why do we take the assessment by the Pentagon at face value? As a citizen, it is one’s duty to be an informed reader and hold our government accountable in seeking clear and truthful information. It is this distinction between a ‘war-torn region’ and a ‘modern, civilized society,’ or the difference between a Middle Eastern region (and by extension, an African one—because they’re both backward war zones, right?) and a European one that supposedly should determine how much one should care and inquire. Implicit notions of triaging world events based on region hearken back to the ugly roots of orientalism and imperialist domination seldom seem to escape our imaginations.

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