Three years ago, a 23-year-old soldier walked off his base in Afghanistan and into the hands of the Taliban. Now he’s a crucial pawn in negotiations to end the war. Will the Pentagon leave a man behind?
During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the military conducted only a handful of drone missions. Today, the Pentagon deploys a fleet of 19,000 drones, relying on them for classified missions that once belonged exclusively to Special Forces units or covert operatives on the ground. American drones have been sent to spy on or kill targets in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Somalia and Libya. Drones routinely patrol the Mexican border, and they provided aerial surveillance over Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. In his first three years, Obama has unleashed 268 covert drone strikes, five times the total George W. Bush ordered during his eight years in office. All told, drones have been used to kill more than 3,000 people designated as terrorists, including at least four U.S. citizens. In the process, according to human rights groups, they have also claimed the lives of more than 800 civilians. Obama’s drone program, in fact, amounts to the largest unmanned aerial offensive ever conducted in military history; never have so few killed so many by remote control.
See also: Drones Won’t Be Taking Over Our Wars Anytime Soon, C.J. Chivers
In Libya, however, the uprising took on a decidedly different character than those of its neighbors. After only a week of peaceful demonstrations, the protesters had transformed themselves into an armed rebel force and began marching on Tripoli. A series of high-level Libyan officials defected to the opposition, joining the newly formed government in Benghazi. Qaddafi’s hold on power looked shaky – until he mounted a brutal counteroffensive on March 6th. The rebel leadership in Benghazi pleaded for Western help, making a number of spectacular claims: accusations of mass rapes, of Libyan gunships firing on protesters, of 30,000 civilians killed.
Although some of the claims would later prove false, there was no question that Qaddafi had responded with excessive force, likely killing hundreds of protesters. How President Obama responded to those charges over the next three weeks – and to the rapidly unfolding events on the ground in Libya – provides one of the clearest examples to date of his leadership style and his broader vision for international affairs. Before Libya, Obama’s primary foreignpolicy decisions had centered on fixing the misadventures and mistakes of the Bush era: how to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, how to resolve the deepening disaster in Afghanistan, how to deal with Pakistan, how to get Osama bin Laden. In each case, Obama was struggling to fix policy decisions predicated on a foreign-policy doctrine with which he fundamentally disagreed. With Libya, Obama would demonstrate for the first time, through his actions, how he viewed America’s role in the world, attempting to live up to the lofty declarations he made when he had crafted his National Security Strategy a year earlier. Going forward, he wrote, the U.S. would “avoid acting alone” and “reject the notion that lasting security and prosperity can be found by turning away from universal rights.” Democracy, he insisted, “does not merely represent our better angels, it stands in opposition to aggression and injustice, and our support for human rights is both fundamental to American leadership and a source of our strength in the world.” It was a resounding rejection of the cowboy unilateralism and human-rights-be-damned ethos of the Bush era. “The burdens of a young century,” Obama insisted, “cannot fall on American shoulders alone.”