Drone warfare has its drawbacks

Bausmith / MCT

Los Angeles Times

The drone has become America’s counter-terrorism weapon of choice. But does drone warfare really further U.S. goals abroad?

To wartime strategists under both President George W. Bush and President Obama, the new weapon, like many innovations in the history of military technology, seemed at first like a silver bullet.

Drones with lethal missiles could hover for hours over potential targets, waiting for the moment to strike. They could kill suspected terrorists with relative precision, though not, as the CIA claimed in 2011, without any civilian casualties. Best of all, the drones didn’t endanger American lives; the pilots were safe and snug in Djibouti or Nevada.

In an almost-invisible campaign that started modestly under Bush and expanded dramatically under Obama, the United States has launched more than 1,600 drone strikes against targets in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and, even, in one case, in the Philippines, according to Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations.

But consider how those drone strikes appear if you are an ordinary civilian in, say, northwestern Pakistan. You know you are in constant danger; a missile may strike your home at any time without warning. It’s not clear who’s shooting; the war and its combatants are officially secret. It’s not clear how you can avoid becoming a target; members of al-Qaida are fair game, of course, but what are their neighbors and cousins and grocery suppliers to do?

And if something goes awry, there’s no one to complain to; the CIA doesn’t have a customer service desk, and the government of Pakistan claims (falsely, in most cases) that it has no control over foreign missile strikes.

Drone strikes may be an efficient way to kill terrorists, but they’re no way to make friends.

That’s one of the messages of a stinging new report issued recently by a panel of experts convened by Washington’s independent Stimson Center, a thoroughly establishment group of former officials from both Democratic and Republican administrations. Blue-ribbon commissions in Washington often pull their punches; this one, chaired by retired Army Gen. John P. Abizaid and former Pentagon official Rosa Brooks, didn’t. Among its highlights:

• Just because drone wars have succeeded in killing terrorists doesn’t mean they’re working. “The Obama administration’s heavy reliance on targeted killings as a pillar of U.S. counter-terrorism strategy rests on questionable assumptions and risks increasing instability,” the report warns. After a decade of drone strikes, it notes, we face more Islamic extremists, not fewer.

• The widespread use of drones has created a backlash around the world, and not only in remote villages in Pakistan or Yemen. The report quotes retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, warning that the tactic creates resentment “much greater than the average American appreciates.”

• Reliance on drones for “targeted killing” has allowed the CIA and Pentagon to obscure exactly whom we are fighting. About the only thing the Obama administration has said on the subject is that it has aimed the drone program at “al-Qaida and associated forces.” But, as the report notes, while U.S. targeters may exercise great care in their decisions, the drone attacks still look perilously like “a secret war, governed by secret law.”

• Our drone policy could come back to haunt us once the United States loses its current near-monopoly in drone technology. China and Iran are already working on military drones, and Russia is unlikely to be far behind. If Vladimir Putin decided to use drones against anti-Russian militants in Ukraine, the report notes, “Russia could simply repeat the words used by U.S. officials defending U.S. targeted killings, asserting that it could not provide any evidence without disclosing sources and methods.”

• The ease of using drones makes them seductively tempting to deploy. “The increasing use of lethal drones may create a slippery slope leading to continual or wider wars,” the panel warned. “[Drones] may lower the bar to enter a conflict, without increasing the likelihood of a satisfactory outcome.” Obama has assiduously avoided one slippery slope, the one that leads to putting U.S. troops on the ground, but he’s presided over the creation of another.

Given all those issues, the report notes, it might be a good moment for a pause in the drone wars. But don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

Many of the Stimson Center’s findings “resonate with the administration’s current policy,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told me last week. “As the president said last month at West Point, the United States ‘must be more transparent about both the basis of our counter-terrorism actions and the manner in which they are carried out.’”

But that doesn’t mean the administration plans to abandon drone warfare. It has already said it may soon use the missiles on a new battlefield against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which has shortened its name to Islamic State.

The Stimson Center report gives the administration a smart list of policy proposals: a systematic review of drones’ costs and benefits; a commission on targeting, to show that we’re very careful about whom we kill; and an effort to establish international norms, so when Russia and Iran get drones some basic rules are in place.

I'll add one more: The administration should make public its enemies list. It’s past time that the United States disclosed a list of organizations that qualify as “Al-Qaida associates,” and thus as legitimate targets for U.S. attack. If secrecy is necessary in some cases, keep those secret. But even a partial list would be better than we have now: a secret war governed by secret law.

Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times.

©2014 Los Angeles Times

Read more Other Views stories from the Miami Herald



    Joy-Ann Reid: Why some fear the police

    If you’ve never feared the police — if you don’t get a dull ache in the pit of your stomach when you see red and blue flashing lights, even when you know you’re not doing anything wrong — consider yourself lucky.


    In Florida governor’s race, no limit on nastiness

    Gov. Rick Scott on Monday ramped up an asphalt agenda, calling for more lanes on Interstate 295 in Jacksonville and millions more for airports and seaports.



    Intervening in Syria comes with a price tag

    Hillary Clinton recently reignited the who-lost-Syria debate when she suggested that President Barack Obama made a mistake in not intervening more forcefully early in the Syrian civil war by arming the pro-democracy rebels. I’ve been skeptical about such an intervention — skeptical that there were enough of these “mainstream insurgents,” skeptical that they could ever defeat President Bashar Assad’s army and the Islamists and govern Syria.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category