There is no such thing as a clean war. People die. Combatants get blood on their hands. Disastrously, this time the victims include two civilians held hostage by al-Qaida — U.S. citizen and aid contractor Warren Weinstein, and Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto.
President Barack Obama apologized Thursday to the families of the two men who perished in a United States drone strike on an al-Qaida compound in the remote border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Friendly fire is an awful consequence as old as war itself, but when it claims the lives of innocent civilians, especially one of our countrymen, it hammers home the horrendous cost of war in an especially visceral way.
Based on hundreds of hours of surveillance, intelligence officials believed that senior al-Qaida operatives were in the compound, but not civilians and certainly not an American hostage. Ahmed Farouq, a U.S. citizen described as a prominent al-Qaida member, was also killed in the strike. And Adam Gadahn, a U.S. citizen who became a spokesman for al-Qaida after the 9/11 attack, died in a separate strike in the same region. Obama said the American terrorists had not been specifically targeted in the strikes.
Weinstein’s death has reignited the furor over using drones in counterterrorism operations, and the procedure in place to avoid civilian casualties. It’s time to review those protocols. And Obama should honor his pledge to declassify and release more details of the operation. The Weinstein and Lo Porto families deserve as much. And how else will we learn from our mistakes?
Drone strikes aren’t unfailingly surgical and likely never can be. If more precise human intelligence on the ground could have been fed into the mix, this fatal mistake might have been avoided. But targeted drone strikes are still an approach that results in less collateral damage than alternatives such as traditional bombing or tens of thousands of boots on the ground.
The accidental deaths of Weinstein and Lo Porto are a painful tragedy. Death and tragedy are the consequences of war, including this shadowy conflict that is now the nation’s longest and seemingly most intractable.