Are Drones Really Working?

President Obama’s nomination of John Brennan, who currently serves as the White House Senior Advisor for Counterterrorism, should occasion a debate regarding how the United States can best confront, respond to, or mitigate our most pressing security challenges, including the current counterterrorism strategy. In particular, John Brennan’s nomination as CIA director should spur re-evaluation of the U.S. strategy of using unmanned drone aircraft in conducting lethal strikes against suspected terrorists.

Though drone strikes in Pakistan have fallen over the past two years, use of drones has increased exponentially in Yemen, and the number of attacks in Afghanistan last year spiked as well. As the appetite for active military engagement falls, with a nearly completed withdrawal from Iraq and impending drawdown in Afghanistan, the use of unmanned drones — which offers deniability and no risk to American lives — is alluring. Recent statements by administration officials demonstrate that there is increased reliance on drone strikes in U.S. counterterrorism strategy; indeed, their use might well spread to other countries in the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, and North Africa. Congress should also be playing a role, as noted in a recent Washington Post op-ed by Representative Ralph Ellison (D-MN), who points out that the executive branch has been exercising unilateral authority over use of the drones with no oversight.

As the administration contemplates this expansion, Brennan’s confirmation hearing is an opportunity to debate the existing policy of covert drone attacks — not just on legal or ethical grounds, which also warrant consideration, but also on the question of effectiveness. This is particularly important in Yemen, a place the U.S. intelligence community has indicated poses the most important front against the growth of al-Qaeda and the spread of violent Islamist extremism.

The U.S. military is actively engaged in helping the Yemeni president, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and his transitional government root out al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and its local affiliate, Ansar al-Sharia, by providing military training, equipment, intelligence, and on-the-ground technical assistance. The U.S. has provided varying levels of support to the Yemeni armed forces and its counterterrorism unit for more than a decade, and more recently has assumed a primary role in assisting with Yemen’s military restructuring, as dictated by the November 2011 transition plan signed by the former president and opposition parties after a popular uprising. It is clear that Yemeni military forces need this kind of U.S. support and assistance, but much less so that a broad-based, ongoing U.S.-led drone campaign is the best way to protect U.S. interests in Yemen, the region, and the homeland.

The cloud of secrecy surrounding drone attacks makes it difficult to assess their total impact, but there are troubling indications that it is more negative than U.S. officials admit. First, there is the issue of civilian casualties, on which U.S. officials maintain what seems to be willful ignorance. In a June 2011 speech at Johns Hopkins, Brennan stated that there has not been a “single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency and precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop,” and yet there are numerous incidents of innocent civilians being killed in drone strikes in Yemen over the past several years. These instances have been carefully documented, with estimates ranging from 72 to 171 civilians killed. Second, Brennan has stated in the past that drones are only used against individuals who pose a significant and imminent threat to U.S. interests and citizens, yet because of the secrecy surrounding the program, it is difficult to evaluate if this is actually the case or assess the criteria being used. Third, the approval and expansion of the drone program to include signature strikes means that some targets are selected not based on their specific identity, but rather based on suspicious behavior that may or may not lead to action. This necessarily contradicts the threshold that Brennan previously established and opens the door for unintended consequences with increasing numbers of non-AQAP bystanders being hit.

Advancing U.S. security interests in the Arabian Peninsula depends on Yemen’s long-term stability and reducing the terrain where extremists flourish, which will only be gained through the following: 1) a professional, integrated, and well-trained Yemeni military and security apparatus; 2) an accountable national government that is seen as legitimate and credible in the eyes of its people; and 3) the resources and capacity to provide for the basic needs of its citizens and to remove the incentives that drive young men to join extremist networks and tribes to protect them. The joint U.S.-Yemeni drone campaign is undermining at least two out of these three elements. Drone strikes that hit unintended targets and kill innocent civilians — particularly women and children — undermine confidence in President Hadi, generate hostility and hatred toward the U.S. and Yemeni government, and create fertile breeding ground for extremist elements to take hold of young Yemenis who lack opportunity, hope, and jobs.

The problem with much of U.S. policy-making is that tactical decisions made to achieve short-term objectives often undermine the long-term strategies that need to be implemented. While targeted drone strikes may take out a nefarious character thought to be plotting against the U.S., what happens in the aftermath, especially if civilians are killed in the midst? How many more new recruits rise up in his place? What about the tribe that seeks to take revenge for the death of one of its members, and then attacks government forces? Is our military engaged in counterterrorism operations because the targets are directly plotting against U.S. citizens, or is this becoming more of a counter-insurgency campaign?

President Obama’s second term, bringing with it the establishment of a new national security team, is the appropriate time to ask these tough questions and take a hard look at whether increasing the use of drone strikes is helping or hurting our ability to advance U.S. security interests over the short, medium, and long-term. To his credit, Brennan has called for creating a clear set of standards, criteria, and process to govern counterterrorism actions and decisions about whom to strike with drones. In his current position, he has sought to limit CIA responsibility for targeted killings and has argued that the agency should focus on intelligence activities instead. Now that Brennan will likely be leading this agency, his presence may either expand or limit CIA engagement in lethal action by unmanned drones. Rather than pursuing a drone-based policy because it is the path of least resistance and keeps American soldiers out from harm’s way, the administration should re-examine whether this policy is truly effective or whether it might create more problems than it is solves.

Danya Greenfield is the deputy director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. This piece was first published in The Atlantic.

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