Micah Zenko

Two Cheers For America’s Restraint in the Drone War

If Washington launched targeted strikes everywhere its 'partners' asked it to, the war on terror would be totally out of control.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

On Monday, Oct. 28, Al Jazeera reported a "suspected drone strike" that witnesses on the ground blamed the United States for conducting. The strike has been "confirmed" with no additional details by an anonymous U.S. military official, making it the first well-documented U.S. counterterrorism airstrike in Somalia in 20 months, after conducting at least 18 between January 2007 and January 2012. That makes it something of a rarity, these days.

As I noted recently, one of the inherent difficulties with evaluating U.S. targeted killing policies is that there is much we do not know, and we have a human tendency to fill that knowledge gap by over-interpreting observable events. This dilemma is driven by the clandestine or covert nature of targeted killings, the difficulty of conducting independent investigations where they occur, and the Obama administration’s decision to repeat soothing adjectives about drone strikes, rather than directly answering clarifying questions. A new administration defense of drone strikes was attempted last week by the State Department spokesperson, who denigrated the accuracy of civilian casualty estimates provided by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International with this unsatisfying rationale: "they don’t have a complete picture." The State Department claims that it will review the reports, but it is unlikely the U.S. government will address the charges with any specificity, as they have not with similar reports critical of U.S. foreign policy.

However, even while analysts and policymakers evaluate policies based on incomplete information and with motivated biases that does not mean the task is impossible. One apparently observable fact is the diminishing prominence of non-battlefield targeted killings in U.S. counterterrorism strategies. On current trend lines, 2013 will have the fewest targeted killings since President Obama entered office, with drone strikes down 39 percent in Pakistan and 37 percent in Yemen over the same period in 2012.

While some people are up in arms about the sourcing and accuracy of certain findings from the HRW and Amnesty reports, there is an important and under-studied trend in U.S. targeted killing policies: The Obama administration’s decision not to extend targeted killings into additional non-battlefield settings.

Beginning at least as early as March 2013, Iraqi officials have requested U.S. drone strikes against members of al Qaeda in Iraq and al-Sham or Jabhat al-Nusra that are fighting in Syria’s civil war and destabilizing Iraq with gruesome terrorist attacks. In August, foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari noted that Iraqis would support drone strikes that "target al Qaeda and their bases," but only provided that they do not create "collateral damage." However, in early October, an anonymous administration official told Foreign Policy that drone strikes in Iraq are not seriously being discussed or even considered.

In March 2013, Jordanian officials reportedly offered basing rights for CIA drones in order to conduct lethal strikes in Syria. According to the Pentagon, there were roughly 1,000 U.S. military personnel in Jordan as of this summer. In August, Jordanian officials reportedly asked the United States for surveillance drones to help secure its border with Syria, but Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey pointedly told journalists that "If Jordan were offered surveillance systems … they would be piloted airplanes, not remotely piloted drones." Obviously, President Obama never authorized a limited cruise missile strike against Syria’s chemical weapons delivery capabilities, and, to date, has refrained from accepting Jordan’s offer of hosting U.S. drones for strikes in Syria.

Likewise, the United States has acted with restraint in expanding targeted strikes to other non-battlefield regions. In September, Niger’s foreign minister Mohamed Bazoum declared: "I would really welcome armed drones to shoot down drug traffickers, and all those who live from activities linked to drug trafficking. I don’t see why that shouldn’t be possible." Since February, the U.S. military has flown a small number of unarmed drones out of an airstrip in Niamey — one crashed in Mali in April — to track suspected Islamic militants in Mali and provide targeting intelligence to France. Niger initially wanted the U.S. drones to be armed, but as an unnamed senior official claimed: "The whole issue is lethality. We don’t want to abet a lethal action." So far, the Obama administration has decided not to arm the drones — though they have not ruled this out — and have only authorized their use for surveillance missions in support of French operations.

These requests demonstrate that the seductive allure of drone strikes has not been lost on political and military leaders in conflict-prone regions. I have noticed when speaking with diplomatic and military officials from several such countries about U.S. targeted killing policies that their public condemnation of U.S. practices is followed by a private acknowledgment of an interest to acquire the capability to conduct such lethal actions themselves. This explains why leaders from Pakistan, Yemen, Turkey, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, and elsewhere, have repeatedly requested to procure armed-capable drone systems from the United States. To date, however, all of their requests have been denied — so far. Nevertheless, they all have programs at various stages of development to buy, jointly develop, or indigenously produce their own armed drones.

The requests from Iraq, Jordan, and Niger are examples of negative cases, where an outcome of interest was possible, relevant, or expected, but never happened. Defining what constitutes something as being possible, relevant, or expected is challenging, which explains why there are no databases of drone strikes that never happened. However, for the purposes of evaluating U.S. targeted killings, it is as important to study the instances where lethal force is proposed, debated, and ultimately rejected, as it is to study drone strikes themselves. Moreover, the good news for interested analysts is that the publicly available information about negative cases of drone strikes is perhaps more complete than what one can find for actual events. 

This coming Sunday marks the 11th anniversary of America’s Third War of non-battlefield targeted killings. U.S. officials and policymakers will tell you that there are as many of the categories of targeted individuals on target lists today as there were three or four years ago, yet the number of overall drone strikes has diminished. It is apparent that President Obama has decided to kill fewer suspected militants and terrorists than he was willing to just a few years ago. Of course, the entire point of the administration’s announced reforms in May was to placate public criticism in order to assure that the president would retain the authority to conduct additional lethal strikes at any point in the future. Still, the Obama administration has been wise to reduce the overall number of drone strikes, while rejecting demands for U.S. drone strikes on behalf of additional countries. Such requests are not just a tactic to attempt to kill suspected militants, but a means to deepen America’s commitment to providing for that country’s security against domestic and regionally focused terrorist organizations. Given that there are several thousand al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists, according to the State Department’s own estimates, in the Middle East and North Africa, an open-ended policy of drone strikes for friends would never end. And that, clearly, would only create additional enemies for the United States.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola