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Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Have U.S. Drones Become A ‘Counterinsurgency Air Force’ For Our Allies?

Have U.S. Drones Become A ‘Counterinsurgency Air Force’ For Our Allies?

by Justin Elliott, ProPublica.

On Sunday The New York Times reported that the Obama administration, prompted by the possibility of losing the election, has been developing a “formal rule book” to govern the use of drone strikes, which have killed roughly 2,500 people under President Obama.

One aspect of the piece in particular caught our eye: While administration officials frequently talk about how drone strikes target suspected terrorists plotting against the U.S., the Times says the U.S. has shifted away from that. Instead, it has often targeted enemies of allied governments in countries such as Yemen and Pakistan. From the Times:

[F]or at least two years in Pakistan, partly because of the CIA’s success in decimating al Qaeda’s top ranks, most strikes have been directed at militants whose main battle is with the Pakistani authorities or who fight with the Taliban against American troops in Afghanistan.

In Yemen, some strikes apparently launched by the United States killed militants who were preparing to attack Yemeni military forces. Some of those killed were wearing suicide vests, according to Yemeni news reports.

To learn more about this underappreciated aspect of U.S. drone policy, I spoke to Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has been critical of U.S. drone policy and was quoted in the Times piece. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You were quoted over the weekend arguing that the U.S., with the campaign of drone strikes, is acting as the “counterinsurgency air force of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.” How did you come to this conclusion?

Under the Obama administration, officials have argued that the drone strikes are only hitting operational al Qaeda leaders or people who posed significant and imminent threats to the U.S. homeland. If you actually look at the vast majority of people who have been targeted by the United States, that’s not who they are.

There are a couple of pieces of data showing this. Peter Bergen of The New America Foundation has done estimates on who among those killed could be considered “militant leaders” — either of the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban, or al Qaeda. Under the Bush administration, about 30 percent of those killed could be considered militant leaders. Under Obama, that figure is only 13 percent.

Most of the people who are killed don’t have as their objective to strike the U.S. homeland. Most of the people who are killed by drones want to impose some degree of Sharia law where they live, they want to fight a defensive jihad against security service and the central government, or they want to unseat what they perceive as an apostate regime that rules their country.

Why does this distinction matter so much?

This is a huge outstanding dilemma. Is the primary purpose of the drone attacks counter-terrorism, or is it counter-insurgency? If it’s counter-insurgency, that is a very different mission, and you have to rethink the justifications and rethink what the ultimate goal is of using lethal force.

There was a February article in The New York Times reporting that the goal of U.S. policy in Yemen was to kill about two dozen al Qaeda leaders. There have been about 50 drone strikes in Yemen since that article. Meanwhile, according to U.S. government statements, the size of AQAP has grown from “several hundred” to “a few thousand” members. So the question is, who is actually being targeted, and how does this further U.S. counterterrorism objectives?

Is this use of drone strikes to kill people who are not imminent threats to the U.S. new?

No. The marked shift was in summer 2008, when the Bush administration decided to significantly lower the threshold of who could be attacked.

The purpose of this change was to reduce threats to U.S. servicemembers in southern Afghanistan and to intervene where some suicide attacks were organized in the tribal areas of Pakistan. This was the time when the “signature strikes” really became ingrained. Bush administration officials called this the “reasonable man’ standard,” and if you were displaying what are called “patterns of behavior,” you could be killed.

People mistakenly think that this policy started under Obama, but it didn’t. It did accelerate markedly under Obama. He has had more drones to do this, was much more vigorous about authorizing their use, and expanded the signature strikes into Yemen.

How does this use of drone attacks square with official administration statements describing the policy?

They will never say that the United States uses drones to fight local insurgencies. If they made that case, they would have to create a new bastion of justifications. The current stated justifications are very carefully thought out and very deliberate to loosely adhere to the post-9/11 Authorization to Use Military Force and principles of Article 51 of the UN Charter, governing the use of force.

There has been a long-term fight with people within the administration who want to reform the policy and think the U.S. needs to be more transparent — both for domestic reasons and because of the precedents being set for the use of drone strikes. If other countries follow our practice in how they will use drone strikes, that would be a very unstable, dangerous world to live in.


Note: We asked White House spokesman Tommy Vietor to respond to the notion that drones strikes often involve those who are not a threat to the U.S. He declined to comment.

Photo credit: Corporal Steve Follows RAF


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15 responses to “Have U.S. Drones Become A ‘Counterinsurgency Air Force’ For Our Allies?”

  1. nobsartist says:

    I hope we are getting paid to do other countries dirty work.

  2. ivory69690 says:

    if the US is going to be running the drone,s thing let it be known by the UN and let them have the last word on the use of them on matter that have to do with the UN ,s job of the protection os the UN places only . but let the UN deside then ask who ever dose the drone things to help. ((((( but it has to be done and desided by the UN to do any strikes)))) and then what ever thy deside then thy should pay for it out of UN money . and that is just for UN,s work not for the USA defending ourselfs from either of the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban, or al Qaeda or any taliban that pose,s a threat to the USA

    • Let that also apply to American soldiers, they bleed a lot more than drones.

    • 13observer says:

      how about fu*k the United Nations and their bullsh*t “small arms treaty” to disarm American citizens of guns and their rights under the Second Amendment of our Constitution! We will have a real war in the states if that occurs!

  3. Dianne Lee says:

    War is Hell. That is an established concept and actually the objective of having a war at all. But, we are no longer having nice neat wars where everyone plays by the rules. Those rules specifically are that an area is declared the “front” and those who do not wish to participate get as far away from the area as possible and let those who are participating go to it. And governments that support those involved directly do so openly and honestly. This situation is not perfect in preventing the death of innocent bystanders but their destruction is not the intended objective.

    Instead, we now are fighting an enemy who is not openly backed by any government and whose primary purpose is the destruction of as many innocent lives as possible. They do not fight those who are armed. They are too cowardly for that. Instead, they find some uneducated kid, who will believe anything they tell him, get him as high as possible and still be able to walk, strap a bomb to him and send him to where ever he can kill the greatest number of innocent civilians.

    Using the drones, we have been able to do serious damage to the people who are running the organizations who are supporting this activity. Yes, there are innocent people killed in these attack, but they need to realize that where ever that guy is standing at the current moment is the “front” and stay the hell away from him. I totally support using the drones to kill these people, and continuing to do so as long as they are trying to kill us.

  4. 13observer says:

    lets put drones on the border to combat illegal immigration!!!! Now that is AFFECTIVE immigration reform!

    • Rene Rivas says:

      That is an excellent idea. Anywhere there is surveillance needed and not enough man power to get the job done it would work.

      • ralphkr says:

        I suggest that you start reading more newspapers, Rene, and notice how many organizations are gearing up to utilize drones. It is not just limited to LEOs in cities such as New York and Los Angeles but to agencies in practically ever part of the country. If you start researching drones you shall find that range in size from a butterfly up to the ones you see in the news over Afghanistan. Another Science Fiction crazy notion is coming true in a neighborhood near you.

    • Bill says:

      Do you mean “EFFECTIVE” dummy. Affective means “of, caused by, or expressing emotion or feeling; emotional”. Effective means “adequate to accomplish a purpose; producing the intended or expected result” Check your word usuaage before posting a reply you simple stupid person.

      • 13observer says:

        Oh boy, typo gets you killed! It is a typical “COMMUNIST” response…………. did I spell communist correctly ‘professor”?

  5. 13observer says:

    Hell we don’t need a fence, if we warned everyone on the border that drones were going to bomb them if they got near our border and then did so when they breeched the threshold, we could stop illegal immigration for the most part! If they are looking at immigration reform then serious consequences must be put in place! Bio card I.D. E-verify and the like or there should be no consideration of reform period!!!!!!

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