For the second time in about a week, a study has been issued examining the terrible human costs of the drone wars being carried out and expanded under President Obama. Entitled "The Civilian Impact of Drones: Unexamined Costs, Unanswered Questions," the new report was issued on Oct. 1 by the Columbia Law School and the Center for Civilians in Conflict, and it constitutes another damning indictment of the policy using covert drone strikes to kill targets in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, much of which is personally overseen and approved by Barack Obama.
A major theme of the study is to debunk the notion of "precision" in drone strikes. It quotes Obama, for example, as describing drone strikes as "precise, precision strikes against Al Qaeda and their affiliates." There is no "precision" in either targetting before strikes, or in assessing casualities and damage after the fact, the study documents.
The Columbia study notes the difficulty in determining civilian casualties caused by drone strikes, but notes that the CIA and JSOC (the military's Joint Special Operations Command) have the same problem: the lack of active intelligence in areas where the U.S. does not have boots on the ground. In the Pakistan tribal areas, Yemen, and Somalia — the U.S. has little if any human intelligence, little signals intelligence (because of the low-technology environment), and a lot of drone video surveillance. But the latter is of limited value because of the inability to distinguish individuals on the ground, and the "soda straw" effect — a very narrow view, missing the wider picture. (For example, one drone operator targetted a truck thought to be full of "insurgents;" after the missile was fired, two young boys riding bicycles unexpectly appeared on the screen, and the drone operator could do nothing as he watched the missile kill the two boys as well as the "insurgents" on the truck.)
The Columbia report, in addition to detailing the harm to civilians caused by drone strikes, delves deeper into the legal implications of Obama's policy, and its flagrant violations of the laws of war and interational humanitarian law. It also does a more thorough analysis of the roles of the CIA and JSOC, and the different legal authorities under which they operate, but pointing out that they have become virtually indistinguishable in practice. As a number of observers have pointed out, JSOC, sometimes called "the President's army," has a particular fascination for Obama, and it is his favorite killing instrument.
The super-secret JSOC operates without any significant public scrutiny and it also evades Congressional oversight, the Columbia report notes (which may be why Obama loves it so much). JSOC, as Gen. Barry McCaffrey noted, is "a parallel universe." It operates in almost total secrecy, outside of the conventional military command structure and rules of engagement. And it maneuvers in the cracks, in-between Congressional oversight of either military operations, or intelligence operations. Many if not most of the drone strikes with high civilian casualties, often attributed to CIA, are actually carried out by JSOC.
There are many indications that drone strikes are actually increasing overall violence and contributing to anti-American sentiment. A number of studies have found that the effect of the drone strikes has been a radicalization of the population and increased recruiting by Al-Qaeda and related groups. A lawyer in Yemen said the following in a May tweet: "Dear Obama, when a US drone kills a child in Yemen, the father will go to war with you, guaranteed. Nothing to do with al-Qaeda."