Drone strikes are the weapon of choice in the current phase of the endless “war on terror.” They have become the trademark instrument of the Obama presidency which has dedicated itself to eliminating any Islamic jihadi who may now or in the future constitute a threat to the United States. That category includes all those who identify themselves as members of an al-Qaeda affiliate whether in Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Libya or Pakistani; the Taliban in either the Afghan or Pakistani variant; anyone placed on the White House’s secret “kill list” not an explicit member of the above mentioned groups; as well as anyone who is seen as providing material or ideological support to these groups and/or persons. American citizens outside the United States are also subject to summary execution by drone as occurred with Anwar al-Awlaki and his teen-age son in Yemen last year.
Drones have a number of advantages for this purpose. They are silent, they appear anonymous – so the attacks can be masked as coming from local air forces, they are cheap, they do not risk capture of American military personnel, and they keep such a low profile that Washington need not confirm that the program exists even as credit is taken for the liquidation of top officials and contrived explanations offered of why these claimed precision weapons have wiped out a Pashtun wedding party in some Afghan village or killed a friendly tribal chief in the Yemeni highlands.
For these reasons, drones are the weapon of convenience as well as the weapon of choice based on presumed effectiveness. They are accepted as such by nearly the entire foreign policy community and with unanimity by national politicians. American ingenuity and technology is widely hailed as the hidden ace in the American hand. This lack of critical scrutiny has allowed the program to expand drastically with little if any public explanation or justification. Consequently, flaws in its underlying logic are overlooked while administration statements made in the wake of embarrassing errors lack logic or coherence to the point of self-contradiction.
Last week, as a case in point, we saw military authorities issuing a battery of statements designed to downplay the episode in Yemen where the killing of women and children in a drone strike enraged an entire community. The rage expressed itself in pledges to join the local al-Qaeda franchise Ansar al-Sharia as the best way to take revenge and to kill Americans. The botched drone strike in the central town of Rada that left 12 civilians dead evoked this official Washington proclamation : “We don’t go after people in dwellings where we don’t know who everyone is. We work very hard to minimize the collateral damage.” Cross my heart and hope to die. This in an outright mistruth – i.e., a lie. For that is precisely what we have been doing in Afghanistan and Pakistan for years as acknowledged in both official strategy and after the fact delayed admissions. Our baldy stated intention is to go after a high value target if believed in a compound or other residence whatever the risk of collateral damage to civilians. Further, we will attack locations where supposed enemies are known to assemble or groups of people engaged in certain predetermined patterns of behavior even where there is no sure knowledge that we have miscreants in our cross-hairs.
These last are called “signature” strikes by the White House and the Pentagon. In April of this year, the Washington Post (April 26, 2012) reported their authorization by President Obama. That allows the Central Intelligence Agency and the US military to launch drone attacks when the identity of those who could be killed is not known. The Wall Street Journal (April 26, 2012) quoted a senior official as explaining that the United States has gone yet a step further in the Pakistani tribal areas in targeting wider communities “if intelligence points to al-Qaeda related activity” in the vicinity. In other words, we declare some locations are “toxic’ – anyone observed at them is to be neutralized.
Was the spokesman who sought to explain away the Rada incident saying that we observe more discriminating rules of engagement in Yemen? No – no such assertion has been made. One can only assume that he believed that he could get away with this legerdemain before a complacent and deferential media.
The spokesman went on to say: “like any programs managed and operated by human beings, mistakes happen. We are not perfect.” The issue, though, is not perfection in execution; it is the design that has a built-in disregard for the deleterious effects of killing innocents. Let’s be clear. The supposed targets pose no clear and imminent threat to the United States. We are speaking of people living in some of the most remote terrain on the face of the earth who, for the most part, have neither the capacity nor even the will to harm Americans other than those hunting them. It is only by an extremely loose line of reasoning that Taliban fighters or Yemeni insurgents are connected to the now decimated classic al-Qaeda that produced 9/11.
Yet, officials have gone so far as to declare, off the record, that any claimed civilian casualty must be so proven or otherwise presumed to have been a combatant. Proven by whom? By what measure? From beyond the grave? To what effect?
It should be pointed out that the success in largely decapitating classic al-Qaeda entailed conventional operations; drones were the agent in only a couple of later forays. Official communiques obscure the distinction between those leaders and current fragmented operators – as it obscures the al-Qaeda/Taliban distinction and the Taliban/Haqqani distinction. In addition, it is now habitual to follow the self-serving policy of inflating the status of those we kill by drones and of exaggerating both the importance of the targeted persons and the level of certainty as to who they allegedly are. Taking those communiques at face value, one would have to believe that the Taliban, al-Sabaab, Ansar al-Sharia et al are composed mainly of senior commanders, commanders, planners, critical fund raisers and spiritual leaders. Their killing always deals “a heavy blow” to the enemy’s operational capacity. Foot soldiers appear to be in a minority. This practice extends a pattern that formed in Iraq. There, so many commanders of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia’s Mosul faction were officially eliminated that these so-called leaders were popping up like cardboard figures in a shooting gallery.
The greatest illogicality of this drone based approach, and the one with the gravest consequences, is that it is counter-productive. These widespread and often misdirected attacks are the radicals’ best recruiting tool. Entire villages and clans are turned against the United States and its local allies by the killing of innocents. This phenomenon is recognized by those who have direct experience of these situations and are unconnected to the “war on terror” complex. The skeptical view is cogently stated by Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright scholar in Yemen and the author of “The Last Refuge ” – a recently released book on Yemen and al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. He writes:
“Essentially what the U.S. is doing is bombing suspected AQAP targets in Yemen in the hopes that AQAP doesn’t bomb the U.S….In my view, this is neither sustainable nor wise. We have seen AQAP grow incredibly fast in a remarkably short amount of time, expanding from 200-300 fighters in 2009, when the U.S. bombing campaign began, to more than 1,000 fighters today. That is more exacerbating and expanding the threat than it is disrupting, dismantling and defeating it.”
In Pakistan, U.S. drone strikes in the tribal areas have killed between 500 and 800 civilians of whom 174 children – according to a study (Living Under Drones) by researchers at Stanford and NYU. The number of maimed and wounded is commensurately higher. The implications for American long-term interests do not register in official Washington. John Brennan, White House counter-terrorism chief and leading candidate to be the next Director of the CIA, testified in 2011 that “there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop.” Denial changes neither what actually happened nor the reality of the intensifying hostility against the United States in all social strata across Pakistan. Mounting anti-Americanism is a major liability to exerting any measure of political influence in those places where drone strikes are the order of the day. It also could motivate unaffiliated loners to plan attacks with a skill and dedication now lacking among those ”listed” groups whom we fear yet who now have very limited ability to do us serious harm.
These issues are not receiving concentrated attention in Washington. Drone flights grow; the tally of “bad guys” grows; public inattention grows. We are addicted to a literally mindless policy that is on automatic pilot. The question is not one of perfection; rather, it is whether we have any intelligent design whatsoever.
Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.