Soft power means having to say you’re sorry

In Yemen, when Al-Qaeda screws up, they apologize:

Qassim al-Rimi, commander of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, said in a video posted on militant websites that the attackers were warned in advance not to enter the hospital within the complex, nor a place for prayer there. But he said one fighter did.

“Now we acknowledge our mistake and guilt,” al-Rimi said in a video released late Saturday by al-Qaeda’s media arm al-Mallahem. “We offer our apology and condolences to the victims’ families. We accept full responsibility for what happened in the hospital and will pay blood money for the victims’ families.”

The United States, meanwhile, recently blew up (via drone, of course) a convoy of Yemenis who were either all terrorist masterminds or mostly innocent civilians on their way to a wedding. In response, we won’t even acknowledge that the strike happened, let alone offer any apology or promise to investigate. To the extent we’ll admit to the strike at all we insist that the wedding we struck was Zombie bin Laden gay marrying Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:

Between nine and 12 militants were killed in the strike in al-Baydah province, the U.S. officials said. But, in stark contrast to local reports of between 13 and 15 civilians being killed when the missile “mistakenly” hit the several-car procession, they did not know of any civilian casualties. Instead, they said the militants were en route to the wedding but not near civilians when the blast occurred.

Two U.S. officials spoke to the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss drone operations. The officials provided no specifics substantiating their claim that only militants were killed. American officials have referenced the program in the past but it’s rare for an individual strike to receive a public comment.

One of the many problems with this kind of after (drone) action report from the US government is that we already know that the US government counts any military-age male casualties of a drone strike as militants unless proven otherwise. So when reports on the ground conflict with our assessments, there’s no reason to really believe either side. Witnesses may have an incentive to lie about who the victims were, or may simply not know who they were, but our government’s SOP is to lie about who the victims were, or at least to assume the worst about them without any evidence other than “this person was close to a place that we bombed, ergo he must have been one of the targets.” QED, I guess.

Even if that’s a fair way to count drone casualties, and to me there’s no way it could be, there ought to be bigger considerations in play than simply how many terrorists we can kill in a given strike. As Conor Friedersdorf points out, this strike certainly killed, injured, and mentally scarred countless Yemenis in the name of killing a few alleged terrorists who, let’s be honest, were not imminent threats against the United States (unless that Zombie bin Laden-Ahmadinejad wedding thing is true, in which case, I hope those kids make each other very happy) and probably wouldn’t have rated high enough on the threat scale to justify a ground assault to take them out. But when you turn “killing foreign nationals” into a video game where those foreign nationals are the only ones in danger of dying, their lives start to come pretty cheaply.

Except they don’t, in the long run. Al Qaeda is on the rise in Yemen, in large part because AQAP, its branch there, seems to get that the long game is what really matters, and that you win that long game by winning the support of the people and bringing them over to your cause. Mistakes happen in war, like some lone nut going against orders and attacking a hospital, and so do awful things, like collateral civilian casualties. But the side that knows the power of an apology, and a promise to try to do better in the future, is the side that’s going to win the support of the people and, eventually, the long game. Lives were lost and irrevocably worsened by this drone strike, and maybe the strike really was necessary, but those lives demand some kind of acknowledgement and a promise to do better. Our failure to do either in this case is aiding and abetting our enemies.


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