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To Drone, Or Not To Drone—That Is The Question


Over the last 15 years, the fervent, and often unquestioning embrace of drone strike operations have helped the U.S. create the most comprehensive and far-reaching counterterrorism (CT) apparatus in history. The growing prominence and increasing reliance on drone strikes operations have made them the centerpiece of U.S. counterterrorism strategy, and the weapon of choice to confront an increasingly decentralized and metastasizing threat from transnational terrorist networks.

The dilemma confronting the U.S. centers around drone strike operations, previously conducted and overseen by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), but more recently, in the twilight years of the Obama administration, brought under the purview of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). These operations are being conducted outside of designated combat zones and utilize both targeted strikes against specific individuals, as well as what’s known as “signature strikes”—lethal action taken against individuals the U.S. suspects may be involved in terrorist activity. These operations remain shrouded in secrecy and are conducted as covert actions around the world—targets ranging from a resurgent al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen to a stubborn Taliban insurgency in Pakistan, all have fallen prey to the perpetual, unblinking eye of the U.S. drone war.

The litany of benefits drones offer to the U.S. military and intelligence services are offset by the deeply controversial nature of U.S. drone strike policy. Profound legal and moral questions have been raised regarding covert drone strike operations, including, but not limited to, violating international humanitarian law, circumventing the right to due process through extra-judiciary executions, mounting civilian causalities, and significant deficiencies in accountability and transparency.

The problem becoming increasing apparent with covert drone strike operations is that they are no longer viewed as a simple tactic, but instead as the primary vehicle driving U.S. counterterrorism strategy. The institutionalization of drone strikes risks compromising the judicious deployment of these incredibly powerful weapons systems—effectively stymieing any future debate surrounding their ethical and strategic value.

The genesis the U.S.’ covert drone strike operations, and the CIA’s involvement spearheading these missions, emerged from the recognition that the U.S. needed to quickly adapt to AQ’s exploitation of safe havens in Pakistan, while at the same time avoiding any potential complications to the development of regional partnerships (i.e. Pakistan), which would not doubt frown upon overt military operations being conducted within their borders. However, the tacit approval of the Pakistani government and security services opened the door for the U.S. to expand its covert drone war into FATA—demonstrating that AQ and its brethren would never enjoy respite within its traditional sanctuaries. The CIA drone strike program in Pakistan had modest beginnings, but big things often have small beginnings.

The advent of the U.S. drone war was made possible through the passage of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF)—a broadly worded directive that bestowed upon the president an unprecedented expansion of executive power. The basic principles that the U.S. relies upon to justify its operations post 9/11, rest upon the guidelines set forth under the principles of “armed conflict” and the U.S.’s right to “self-defense”—a claim rooted in the notion that al-Qaeda (AQ), its affiliates and the Taliban, pose an immediate and persistent threat to U.S. national security. The AUMF was utilized as justification for not just the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but eventually, ongoing counterterrorism operations in the Pakistan, Yemen, and the Horn of Africa (i.e. Somalia and Kenya)—a major thrust of these operations involve the use of drone strikes.

Retired four-star general, and former CIA and National Security Agency Director, Michael Hayden, wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times exalting the benefits of drone warfare and details his role in expanding the scope of U.S. drone strike operations. Mr. Hayden says that drones have become “the American way of war”, and that these operations, while far from perfect, are an incredibly powerful and effective weapon against the type of threats facing the U.S. from transnational terrorist networks that aren’t bound to designated combat zones.

Mr. Hayden recounts his experiences collecting intelligence and analyzing the movements of AQ operatives as they seamlessly moved back and forth between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The biggest hurdle Mr. Hayden faced was not identifying the areas which AQ and Taliban militants utilized, but instead ensuring the Bush administration understood the urgency required to take action. Mr. Hayden’s assessment, while factually accurate, is indicative of the mindset being propagated in the U.S. drone debate. Drone strikes are only a tactic, not a strategy for defeating the scourge of transnational terrorist threats. These incredibly powerful weapons systems are only a tool—they should not be mistaken as a panacea for the complex political, economic, and social challenges that are the driving force behind the emergence of groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS.

During the Bush administration’s final year in office, U.S. drone strike operations in Pakistan went from just 4 in 2007 to 36 in 2008. The Bush administration only dipped its toe into the fledgling potential of CIA-led drone strike operations, but its policies laid the foundation upon which the Obama administration would eventually build its massive counterterrorism apparatus.

Under the Obama administration’s tutelage, the architects of the Bush-era drone strike program remained intact—ensuring continuity between past and present policy implementation. Under his leadership, despite criticisms made during his campaign regarding the legal and political ramifications of Bush-era counterterrorism policy, President Obama not only kept these operations in place, he significantly expanded their rate of deployment. Provided with the means and the authority, the newly minted commander and chief took aggressive steps to not only increase the frequency of CIA drone strikes, but significantly expanded the scope of these operations into Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

Over the first four years of his administration, Mr. Obama worked diligently to fund the development and deployment of more powerful and sophisticated drone systems. Mr. Obama discovered, rather quickly, that drone strikes are the perfect terrorist-smashing implement, and quickly learned how devastating these operations could be when taken off the leash.

The Bush administration authorized approximately 50 drone strikes that killed 296 terrorists and 195 civilians, Mr. Obama has authorized 506 strikes that have killed 3,040 terrorists and 391 civilians in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The Obama administration has consistently pushed the limits of U.S. drone strike policy, setting a new precedent in the way the U.S. develops and executes counterterrorism operations—solidifying his drone war as the most significant and lasting legacy of the Obama administration.

These civilian casualties reported under the Obama administration, the average total derived from several independent observer groups, stand in stark contrast to the casualties reported in a White House Fact Sheet, released by the Obama administration earlier this month. The fact sheet doesn’t specifically mention drone strike operations, but the civilians casualties reported, between 66-116, are an aggregate of all U.S. counterterrorism operations and fall far short of reporting conducted on drone strike operations.

Mr. Obama has signaled that his administration is dedicated to reversing the trajectory of U.S. counterterrorism operations. During a 2013 speech at the National Defense Institute, Mr. Obama elaborated on his administration’s position on drone strikes saying:

“Where foreign governments cannot or will not effectively stop terrorism in their territory, the primary alternative to targeted lethal action would be the use of conventional military options.  As I’ve already said, even small special operations carry enormous risks.  Conventional airpower or missiles are far less precise than drones, and are likely to cause more civilian casualties and more local outrage.  And invasions of these territories lead us to be viewed as occupying armies, unleash a torrent of unintended consequences, are difficult to contain, result in large numbers of civilian casualties and ultimately empower those who thrive on violent conflict.”

Following that speech, the White House released a declassified version of the administration’s policy toward lethal action taken during counterterrorism operations. The Obama administration fact sheet outlines that lethal action won’t be utilized as a “punishment or as a substitute for prosecuting a terrorist suspect,” and that the U.S. will always strive to prioritize capturing terrorist suspects if it’s feasible, saying this will offer “the best opportunity to gather meaningful intelligence and to mitigate and disrupt terrorist plots”; highlighting the need to be cognoscente of the political and moral ramifications of these actions.

The threat from transnational terrorist organizations continues to evolve, yet the policies the U.S. relies on the conduct counterterrorism operations remain unchanged. The AUMF, the legal authority that allows the president to target and kill terrorist suspected terrorists around the world, is almost 15 years old. And while al-Qaeda remains active and their ideology continues to proliferate across the globe, their operational presence is changing, as new and more evolved terrorist organizations take their place – namely ISIS, which operates more like a transnational insurgency, than a terrorist group.

If Mr. Obama was serious about making substantive changes to the way the U.S. conducts not only drone strikes but all counterterrorism operations, then he should push Congress to vote on a new AUMF that provides specific guidelines and parameters for U.S. operations abroad—unfortunately, however, it’s too little too late. Congress’ abdication of its responsibility to restrain executive war-making powers leaves few viable mechanisms of governance in place to balance the use and potential misuse of drone strike operations.

The Obama administration is making superficial alterations to U.S. drone strike policy—moving the pieces around the board, not off it. There is nothing stopping the next U.S. administration from reverting drone strike policy back to previous iterations whenever it becomes politically convenient.  The targeted killing of Mullah Mansour in Pakistan demonstrates that the U.S. is willing to push the envelope, and drone strike operations will be the tip of the spear as the U.S. rekindles counterterrorism operations against the Taliban in Pakistan. While Mr. Obama’s proposed changes appear to be genuine, the next U.S. administration will face significant military and intelligence challenges across the globe—drone provide unmatched flexibility and a unique series of capabilities that will prove difficult to ignore.

If we have learned anything from the evolution of drone technology, it’s that the developmental of political and legal architecture often lags so far behind that once it catches up, technology makes another leap forward. And the policy side of these operations once again finds itself playing catch. The Obama administration’s actions, while noble in its intent, do no erase the years his government spent governing a U.S. drone war run amuck.

The actions of the Bush and Obama administration demonstrate that the use of drone strikes are becoming deeply embedded within the military and intelligence community—uprooting that level of “groupthink” is extremely difficult once entrenched in the psyche of policy makers. The U.S. is setting a dangerous precedent that will no doubt be reflected in the policies and actions of other nations. In establishing a model for the future, U.S. policy must adhere to the highest possible moral and legal standard, otherwise, once other nations begin exercising their own drone strike privileges, the U.S. will be standing on very shaky ground upon which to lecture and denounce less responsible actors.

U.S. drone strikes need to be employed judicially and incorporated into a broader, more comprehensive counterterrorism strategy. The U.S. must be dedicated to robust investments in the developmental of social services, critical infrastructure, accountable governmental bodies, and economic initiatives that target vulnerable failing states where potential precursors exist that could facilitate a new genesis of terrorist activity. The metastasis of ISIS and al-Qaeda before it, are rooted in a failure to establish and maintain political order. These groups thrive in states suffering from a weak or sometimes nonexistent central government authority, capitalizing on power vacuums and instability.

The U.S. stands at a crossroads—will it revise the policy and structure of its drone strike operations to allow greater accountability and transparency, or continue to conduct these operations with no clear scope and shrouded in secrecy.



Joseph Karam

Joseph Karam is a foreign policy and national security observer with a focus on the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. Joseph graduated from Lycoming College with a Bachelor's degree in Psychology and Norwich University with a Master's Degree in Diplomacy Studies concentrating on International Terrorism. You can find Joseph on Twitter @Joseph_Karam