Targeted killings have become the nation’s primary tool in the war on terrorism. The rise of remote-control counterterrorism has come about as the result of a combination of sophisticated technology and the radical shift in America’s international behavior since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. What was considered a questionable, even illegal application of force before 9/11 became increasingly acceptable in the years following the attacks.
Today, strikes by Predator- and Reaper-armed drones operating in the tribal areas of Western Pakistan have become commonplace. There were an estimated 60 such missile strikes between January and April 2010. Since the expansion of the targeted killing program by the Bush administration in August 2008 and continued by President Obama, an estimated 500 to over 1,000 militants have been killed. When it comes to striking America’s leading terrorist enemies, CIA Director Leon Panetta has described targeted killing as “the only game in town.”
The Operational Logic of the Drones
Armed drone aircraft offer a reliable solution to some of the most enduring challenges of operations against unconventional enemies. Terrorists and insurgents have found sanctuary in remote and inaccessible corners of the world, in countries often unwilling to allow the United States to operate on their soil. In the past the United States either had to accept the existence of these terror sanctuaries, or strike them in an unsystematic fashion, such as when President Clinton launched a cruise missile attack on al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan in August 1998, following terrorist attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania two weeks earlier.
Armed drones offer decision makers a variety of capabilities to take the fight more effectively to these insurgent sanctuaries. Drones are low cost weapons that can conduct long term surveillance and surgical attack operations. They do not require commitment of ground forces inside terrorist safe havens, and can be used in a variety of ways that give decision makers flexibility in engaging potential targets.
The United States first began using attack drones after 9/11 to kill high-level terrorist leadership targets, following the example of Israel, which had been engaging in targeted killings for years. These operations were designed to have maximum impact by disrupting the primary nodes of terrorist networks. But as the number of drones increased and the United States became more skilled in their use, the target group deepened. Since the expansion of drone operations in August 2008, attacks are no longer limited to terrorist leadership elements but can include virtually anyone active in anti-U.S. extremist violence. The objective is no longer simply to disrupt principle nodes by killing terrorist leaders but to maintain pressure at all levels of extremist organizations and to make it extremely difficult to plan and conduct operations, or even simply to survive day to day.
Operating in a State of Denial
A minor furor erupted in February 2009 when Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, mentioned during a public hearing that the United States was operating drones from bases in Pakistan. The Pakistan Daily Times proclaimed “The Drones Are Here!” and Ms. Feinstein explained that she was only repeating what she had seen reported in the American press. But the incident illustrated the political sensitivities of drone operations in host countries. Publicly the government of Pakistan is strongly opposed to the use of drones inside their country; but the attacks could not be conducted without Islamabad’s full cooperation.
Selected targeted killing operations have been carried out in Yemen, Somalia and probably other countries, but the majority of them have taken place in Pakistan. The mountainous tribal areas in Western Pakistan have served as a terrorist sanctuary for decades, and are the principle safe haven for al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Drones are an ideal tool for overcoming the terrain and cultural challenges that complicate counterterrorism operations in that area. Nevertheless, because drones have a limited range, they must be based inside Pakistan to effectively reach their targets.
Pakistan’s former president, Pervez Musharraf, limited the scope of American drone operations prior to August 2008, but these operations have expanded and U.S.-Pakistani cooperation has intensified under his successor, Asif Ali Zardari. Terrorists assassinated President Zardari’s wife, Benazir Bhutto, in December 2007 and the new president apparently was willing to use all the tools available to press the fight against radical extremism. Indeed, it could be viewed as a personal vindication of the new policy when Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud—widely credited with planning the Bhutto assassination—was killed in a drone strike in August 2009. Pakistani intelligence teams now work closely with Americans in identifying targets and coordinating with assets on the ground to maximize the effectiveness of drone strikes.
Yet both governments maintain a veil of official secrecy over these operations, and members of the ruling party in Pakistan routinely denounce drone operations in public while offering private encouragement and support. This public/private ambiguity is a necessary element when conducting deadly covert operations inside sovereign states that are understandably wary about publicly acknowledging the targeting of their own citizens.
Divided Public Opinion
Many Pakistanis strongly oppose U.S. drone operations, but this is not the case in the areas in which the drones are most active. An opinion poll conducted in the tribal lands of Western Pakistan in the spring of 2009 revealed that the drone strikes were surprisingly popular. The non-government Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy surveyed 550 people in Predator-targeted areas of the North West Frontier Province and Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The poll found that 58 percent of respondents said that the drone attacks “have not increased anti-American feelings,” 55 percent said they did not “create fear and terror in the common people,” and 60 percent said the strikes were effective in damaging terror organizations. Farhat Taj, who was one of the authors of the study, said that the locals welcomed the drones because they were the most effective means of removing the extremists from their midst. Over two-thirds of the people surveyed “viewed al-Qaeda and the Taliban as enemy number one.” Ms. Taj said that “the [local] people feel they are hostage. They are overpowered by the armed militants.” The locals would prefer that Pakistan’s armed forces take care of the problem, but since they either cannot or will not, the drones are an acceptable alternative.
A major concern with drone operations is the risk of non-combatant casualties. Reports of innocents being killed in drone operations have served as rallying points for opponents of the program. Reported estimates of “collateral damage” range from five to 20 percent, though other estimates place the number much higher. One problem is that because drone operations are conducted deep in enemy controlled areas, terrorists and insurgents usually have physical control of the attack site and can portray the scene to the media in ways that make it appear that only innocent people were killed. These reports are difficult to contradict since the operations are not publicly acknowledged to begin with, and there are no official sources of information about the effects of drone strikes. As a result the insurgents have a significant advantage in their ability to portray the effects of drone operations in a very negative light without being quickly contradicted by Washington or Islamabad.
The Legal Angle
In June 2007, then-Senator Barack Obama said, “I don’t believe in assassinations, but Osama bin Laden has declared war on us, killed 3,000 people, and under existing law, including international law, when you’ve got a military target like bin Laden, you take him out.” President Obama, who made moral objections to holding terrorist detainees at the facility at Guantanamo Bay and to the use of enhanced interrogation techniques as a centerpiece of the counterterrorism strategy, has shown no hesitation about continuing and expanding the use of targeted killings.
Drone operations are conducted in a significant legal gray area. Before the 9/11 attacks the prevailing sentiment was that targeted killings were governed by Reagan-era Executive Order 12333, which banned assassinations except in extreme circumstances authorized by the president. But after 9/11, targeted killings were viewed through the lens of the inherent right of a country to act in self-defense, and through the rules governing armed conflict. Under this framework the use of drones to attack members of organized terrorist and insurgent groups in a state of war with the United States is no different than any other use of force against military targets. It is not “assassination,” it is simply a highly focused and effective means of war fighting.
In March 2010, State Department legal advisor Harold Koh gave a thorough defense of the use of drones using the self-defense rationale. He also stated that, “In U.S. operations against al-Qaeda and its associated forces—including lethal operations conducted with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles—great care is taken to adhere to these principles in both planning and execution, to ensure that only legitimate objectives are targeted and that collateral damage is kept to a minimum.” He stated that the “procedures and practices for identifying lawful targets are extremely robust” and that “the principles of distinction and proportionality that the United States applies… are implemented rigorously throughout the planning and execution of lethal operations to ensure that such operations are conducted in accordance with all applicable law.”
There are several problems with this line of reasoning that have yet to be tested in the courts. One is that the groups being targeted are non-state actors, and there is some question as to the legal status of a “war” against such groups since war is traditionally a state-to-state enterprise. It is also unclear exactly which terrorist and insurgent groups can legitimately be included in the target set, since these organizations by their nature are loosely structured and amorphous. The United States cannot easily claim the right to hunt down any terrorist anywhere in the world under the assumption that all such people constitute a threat to the country. Also, since drone operations are conducted abroad, they fall under the laws of the countries in which the drones operate. It is one thing to identify a terror cell that is a legitimate target using the rationale of self-defense, and another thing to claim the right to utilize deadly force against foreign nationals living outside the United States. Thus it is critical to conduct operations fully with the cooperation of the countries within which they are occurring, or risk the charge of having committed an act of aggression against a sovereign state.
Loyola law school professor David Glazier has also raised the issue of whether the laws of war rightly apply to non-military covert operations. He has asserted that CIA operatives are “clearly not lawful combatants, [and] if you are not a privileged combatant, you simply don’t have immunity from domestic law for participating in hostilities.” The secrecy surrounding these operations has made it difficult for test cases to arise. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit asking the government to reveal its targeting protocols to see whether they in fact meet the requirements of distinction and proportionality, but it is unlikely that the courts will choose to enter such a sensitive area of national security.
Can Drones Do It Alone?
Drone strikes are an increasingly attractive tool for conducting offensive operations against terrorists but they are not a panacea. They can only be conducted in areas in which host governments cooperate and facilitate the ground-based human intelligence necessary for effective targeting. Additionally, terrorists in Pakistan have begun to adapt to drone operations by seeking sanctuary in crowded urban areas that makes it more difficult to find them and to conduct operations relatively free of collateral damage once they are located. Furthermore, the expanded drone attack program has been cited as the motive force behind recent attempted terrorist attacks on the U.S. homeland, particularly the failed Christmas Day 2009 bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253, and the failed Time Square bombing attempt in May 2010. The more the United States takes the attacks to terrorists’ sanctuaries, the more likely terrorists are to try to strike back at the American homeland.
Killing terrorist leaders is also a second-best solution in some respects. Capturing terror leaders provides valuable intelligence that can better help disrupt networks and future attack plans. It is always preferable to take a terror leader prisoner than to kill him, but sometimes capture is not an option. Moreover, it is possible that when one leader is killed his replacement may be a more virulent and effective terrorist, but the experience in Israel and Saudi Arabia has been to simply keep taking out successors until no one accepts an overt leadership role.
Building on the success of operations in Pakistan, drone operations may expand in Yemen, Somalia and other terrorist safe havens. They have been suggested as playing a role in anti-piracy and counternarcotics operations. New drones are being developed with longer range, greater dwell time over targets, and more sophisticated and varied surveillance and attack capabilities. Given the general political climate of acceptance of this form of lethal force, we are likely to see drones become the dominant weapon in future unconventional warfare.
James S. Robbins is executive director of the American Security Council Foundation, senior fellow in national security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, and senior editorial writer for foreign affairs at The Washington Times.