WASHINGTON : The deaths of innocent people in a wedding procession in Yemen this month has exposed the reality behind the rhetoric of the United States’ new drone policy, which was announced with fanfare seven months ago, according to a leading American newspaper. The Dec. 12 strike by the Pentagon, launched from an American base in Djibouti, killed at least 12 innocent people, The New York Times said, citing a number of tribal leaders and witnesses, and it provoked a storm of outrage in the country.
On Wednesday, the UN General Assembly pronounced itself on the ever-increasing use of armed drones in the pursuit of the ‘war on terror’, as the 193-member body called for the operations by remotely controlled aircraft to comply with international law.
"Although American officials say they are being more careful before launching drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere — and more transparent about the clandestine wars that President (Barack) Obama has embraced the strike last week offers a window on the intelligence breakdowns and continuing liability of a targeted killing programme that remains almost entirely secret," the newspaper said in a front-page dispatch.
Both the Pentagon and the CIA continue to wage parallel drone wars in Yemen, but neither is discussed publicly, the Times pointed out. A Pentagon spokeswoman declined to comment about the Dec 12 strike, and the Times said It remains unclear whom the Americans were trying to kill in the strike, which was carried out in a desolate area southeast of Yemen’s capital, Sana.
Witnesses to the strike’s aftermath said that one white pickup truck was destroyed and that two or three other vehicles were seriously damaged. The Associated Press reported Friday that the target of the strike was Shawqi Ali Ahmad al-Badani, a militant who is accused of planning a terrorist plot in August that led to the closing of more than a dozen United States Embassies. American officials declined to comment about that report. At first, the Yemeni government, a close partner with the Obama administration on counterterrorism matters, said that all the dead were militants. But Yemeni officials conceded soon afterward that some civilians had been killed, and they gave 101 Kalashnikov rifles and about 24 million Yemeni riyals (about $110,000) to relatives of the victims as part of a traditional compensation process, a local tribal leader said.
Yemeni government officials and several local tribal leaders said that the dead included several militants with ties to Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, but no one has been able to identify them, according to the Times. Some witnesses who have interviewed victims’ families say they believe no militants were killed at all.
"The murky details surrounding the strike raise questions about how rigorously American officials are applying the standards for lethal strikes that Mr. Obama laid out in a speech on May 23 at the National Defence University — and whether such standards are even possible in such a remote and opaque environment," the newspaper said. In the speech, the president said that targeted killing operations were carried out only against militants who posed a “continuing and imminent threat to the American people.” Over the past week, no government official has made a case in public that the people targeted in the strike posed a threat to Americans.
Moreover, the president said in May, no strike can be authorized without “near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured” - a bar he described as “the highest standard we can set.” At the time, administration officials said that authority over the bulk of drone strikes would gradually shift to the Pentagon from the CIA, a move officials said was intended partly to lift the shroud of secrecy from the targeted killing program. But nearly seven months later, the C.I.A. still carries out a majority of drone strikes in Yemen, with the remote-controlled aircraft taking off from a base in the southern desert of Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon strikes, usually launched from the Djibouti base, are cloaked in as much secrecy as those carried out by the CIA. “The contradictory reports about what happened on Dec. 12 underscore the critical need for more transparency from the Obama administration and
Yemeni authorities about these strikes,” Letta Tayler of Human Rights Watch, who has done extensive research in Yemen about the drone strikes, was quoted as saying. "The very fact that the drone strike last week targeted an 11-vehicle convoy - a much larger group than Al Qaeda would typically use - suggests that the new American guidelines to rule out civilian casualties may not have been followed in this case, the Times said. "And the confusion over the victims’ identities raises questions about how the United States government gathers intelligence in such a contested region and with partners whose interests may differ sharply from those of the Obama administration.
"Over the past two years, the Saudi government which for decades has used cash to maintain a network of influence in Yemen - has increased its payments to tribal figures in Bayda to recruit informers and deter militants."