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The US' 'Ability' to Take Out Taliban Released For Bergdahl Isn't So Tidy

John Kerry threatened drone strikes should the Gitmo detainees return to conflict. But drone war is more dangerous than he lets on.
June 9, 2014, 10:45pm
Photo via US Air Force

Secretary of State John Kerry made an unequivocal threat about the United States' capacity to take out the Taliban members swapped for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, should they return to conflict in Afghanistan.

Kerry told CNN that the US has "the ability to do things" should the terms of the prisoner swap be violated.

"I am not telling you they don’t have the ability to go back and get involved [in the Afghan conflict]. But they also have an ability to get killed doing that,” Kerry said. “I don’t think anybody should doubt the capacity of the United States of America to protect Americans.”


Kerry made no specific reference to using drone strikes, but commented, "We have proven what we are capable of doing with the core al Qaeda in West Pakistan, Afghanistan." Both of these are areas where drone strikes have been heavily deployed against senior al Qaeda operatives, like the five men released in exchange for Bergdahl.

Certainly, the move to transfer the detainees out of Gitmo was no judgment on the men as peaceful individuals. They were all considered high-risk terrorist threats. It is, however, a reflection on what US justice looks like in this protracted, amorphous War on Terror era. The US has the "ability to do things" says Kerry, and that's true: The US can indefinitely detain individuals without trial or charge. The US can also extra-judicially execute individuals with drone fire. Kerry's confident assertions also accurately reflect the current state of drone wars, in which the US has a near-unchallenged monopoly.

The secretary of state offered a strong riposte to politicians — largely Republican — who have criticized the prisoner exchange and the release of designated enemies. Kerry's response was unequivocal: We can kill them. And indeed, it seems a strident illustration of the US Empire in the age of drone warfare that America is willing to release five men deemed key enemy assets. Above all though, it's an indictment of the ongoing maintenance of Gitmo if some of the highest security detainees can be transferred out, while 78 detainees already cleared for transfer remain in the prison camp.


Kerry's comments also fail to put drone strikes in their proper context. Yes, it is true that drone technology and its attendant "disposition matrix" allows the US to track and target al Qaeda operatives. But if that's all that drone strikes did, we'd have no problem.

If targeting killings were really so targeted, international fury around US drones would not be so fierce. But, as we know, drone war — still largely the purview of the American war machine — is not so precise. Indeed, according to figures from the UK's Bureau of Investigative Journalism, CIA drones have killed up to 1,639 civilians in Pakistan alone in the last decade, including as many as 202 children. Drone strikes and their casualties have stoked anti-American sentiment in Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

With this in mind, we can take Kerry at his word that the US has the "ability" to target and kill these five men. We must keep in mind what Kerry left out, however. Namely, the broader implications, human rights abrogation, and diplomatic damage that this "ability" also carries.

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard

Image via Wikimedia