WASHINGTON - As Barack Obama renews his lease on the White House for another four years, his administration is debating how best to respond to a growing internal and public controversy over his first term’s non-battlefield counter-terrorist weapon of choice: armed drones.
For months, senior administration officials have reportedly been haggling over the terms of a so-called “playbook” for the use of drones against suspected terrorists that will provide detailed rules for who will be included on so-called “kill lists”, under what circumstances drones can be used to kill them, and what agency can do the killing.
The debate has also included whether or not – and to what extent – the government should make those rules, and the legal justifications that purportedly underlie them, public.
How the debate turns out could be critical to Obama’s hopes of reducing the size of Washington’s military “footprint” in the Middle East, notably by withdrawing ground forces while still pursuing a counter-terrorist strategy to disrupt and destroy Al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Over the past four years, drone strikes have played the pre-eminent role in that strategy.
Altogether, [US predator drones] are believed to have killed more than 3,000 people – more than the 9/11 death toll itself.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which operates the drone program in Pakistan and shares responsibility for drone operations with Pentagon forces in Yemen, has reportedly argued for greater leeway in carrying out strikes.
On the other hand, Obama’s counter-terrorism chief and, significantly, his nominee to head the CIA, John Brennan, has reportedly called for tighter rules, greater restraint, and more transparency.
According to a Washington Post account published Monday, the haggling is now coming to an end in a series of compromises that, among other things, will permit the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to continue its controversial Afghanistan-based drone program against targets in neighboring Pakistan for the next one to two years under the existing rules.
That covers the period when Washington is expected to draw down its military presence in Afghanistan from the current 66,000 troops to 10,000 or less.
One prominent critic of drone warfare has already criticized the anticipated exclusion of Pakistan from the so-called playbook.
“…(I)f the United States decides not to apply the, quote, playbook to Pakistan, it’s essentially meaningless, because 85 percent of all the targeted killings that the U.S. has conducted in non-battlefield settings since 9/11 have occurred in Pakistan,” said Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) whose recently published report, “Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies”, is shaping much of the current debate.
“So the vast majority of targeted killings and drone strikes will not be covered under the playbook,” he told a press teleconference convened by CFR Tuesday.
Since 9/11, U.S. forces have conducted some 425 targeted killings – all but a few through drone strikes — in at least three countries – Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
Altogether, they are believed to have killed more than 3,000 people – more than the 9/11 death toll itself. How many of those killed have been actual members of terrorist organizations, as opposed to civilians, has itself been a matter of intense debate.
The resort to drone strikes evoked controversy from the outset, not only because it marked a reversal of the policy against assassinations upheld by Republican and Democratic presidents alike since CIA assassinations were first exposed in the early 1970’s, but also because of the novelty of long-distance killing.
Typically, the operator of an armed drone sits before a video screen in a secure facility as far away as the state of Nevada, as much as 13,000 kms from the target.
Particularly controversial has been so-called “signature strikes.” While early drone strikes targeted specific identified suspected terrorists included on a “kill list” compiled by various U.S. agencies, “signature strikes”, which have been carried out to devastating effect in Pakistan, in particular, have targeted groups of suspected terrorists whose precise identity is unknown.
According to the former Director of National Intelligence (DNI), Adm. Dennis Blair, the distance between the drone operator and the target should not by itself be controversial. Drones, he told the same CFR teleconference, should be thought of as “long-range snipers, in the military sense”.
Depending on the specific circumstances, he also defended signature strikes. “If we are fighting in Afghanistan, for example, and we know that across the border in Pakistan there are Taliban groups who are gathering and training, …I think we could authorize either snipers – people with rifles – or drones to shoot at armed men who we see getting into pickup trucks and heading towards the Afghanistan border.”
At the same time, however, Blair expressed strong reservations about several aspects of current policy, notably the involvement of the CIA which, due to its covert nature, is precluded from speaking publicly about or defending its operations.
“I strongly believe that a great majority of the use of drones should be done under military command,” he said. “The reason that we have covert action is to be able to deny it.” But that pretense is not sustainable in long campaigns such as the one in Pakistan, he noted.
“The current open-secret, covert-action drone program in Pakistan …does not nothing except to enable the Pakistanis to allow to do it (kill targets), unofficially, and then officially to attack us for it and thereby make us extremely unpopular in Pakistan and interferes with all sorts of other objectives (we have) with Pakistan.”
Zenko agreed, noting that drone policy is “poorly co-ordinated with other elements of national power in the countries where it’s being used,” he said.
“And you can talk to the U.S. ambassadors to Pakistan or Yemen (and) …to the USAID contractors who are trying to do sort of soft-power efforts there, and they will tell you that when you go to the tribal areas of Pakistan or …southern Yemen, drones are the face of U.S. foreign policy.
“Because we don’t articulate and describe our vision for how these are used very well, we essentially …allow the Taliban and …the Pakistani government to tell our story about drones, which is a tremendous strategic communications lapse.”
Both men called for the playbook to be made public when it is completed. “A classified playbook does not reassure the American people who I think are the primary ones that need to be convinced that their government is doing the right thing,” said Blair.
While Zenko said the playbook itself could be “useful”, other critics have described it worrisome.”
Paul Pillar, a former top CIA analyst for the Middle East and South Asia, also questioned its value on his blog.
“Having a playbook on assassinations sounds like it is apt to be a useful guide for making the quick decision whether to pull the trigger on a Hellfire missile when a suspected terrorist is in the sights of a drone. But it probably will not, as far as we know, be of any help in weighing larger important issues such as whether such a killing is likely to generate more future anti-U.S. terrorism because of the anger over collateral casualties than it will prevent taking a bad guy out of commission.”
“By routinizing and institutionalizing a case-by-case set of criteria, there is even the hazard that officials will devote less deliberation than they otherwise would have to such larger considerations because they have the comfort and reassurance of following a manual,” he wrote.