How the president’s drone war is backfiring.
When Barack Obama took the oath of office three years ago, no one associated the phrase “targeted killing” with his optimistic young presidency. In his inaugural address, the 47-year-old former constitutional law professor uttered the word “terror” only once. Instead, he promised to use technology to “harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.”
Oddly, technology has enabled Obama to become something few expected: a president who has dramatically expanded the executive branch’s ability to wage high-tech clandestine war. With a determination that has surprised many, Obama has embraced the CIA, expanded its powers, and approved more targeted killings than any modern president. Over the last three years, the Obama administration has carried out at least 239 covert drone strikes, more than five times the 44 approved under George W. Bush. And after promising to make counterterrorism operations more transparent and rein in executive power, Obama has arguably done the opposite, maintaining secrecy and expanding presidential authority.
Just as importantly, the administration’s excessive use of drone attacks undercuts one of its most laudable policies: a promising new post-9/11 approach to the use of lethal American force, one of multilateralism, transparency, and narrow focus.
Obama’s willingness to deploy lethal force should have come as no surprise. In a 2002 speech, Illinois state senator Obama opposed Bush’s impending invasion of Iraq, but not all conflicts. “I don’t oppose all wars,” he said. “What I am opposed to is a dumb war.” And as president, in his December 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Obama warned, “There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.” Since then, he has not only sent U.S. forces into Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, but also repeatedly approved commando raids in Pakistan and Somalia and on the high seas, while presiding over a system that unleashed hundreds of drone strikes.
In a series of recent interviews, current and former administration officials outlined what could be called an “Obama doctrine” on the use of force. Obama’s embrace of multilateralism, drone strikes, and a light U.S. military presence in Libya, Pakistan, and Yemen, they contend, has proved more effective than Bush’s go-heavy approach in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We will use force unilaterally if necessary against direct threats to the United States,” Ben Rhodes, the administration’s deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, told me. “And we’ll use force in a very precise way.”
Crises the administration deems indirect threats to the United States — such as the uprisings in Libya and Syria — are “threats to global security,” Rhodes argued, and will be responded to multilaterally and not necessarily by force. The drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the creation of a smaller, more agile U.S. military spread across Asia, the Pacific, and the Middle East, are also part of the doctrine. So is the discreet backing of protesters in Egypt, Iran, and Syria.
The emerging strategy — which Rhodes touted as “a far more focused approach to our adversaries” — is a welcome shift from the martial policies and bellicose rhetoric of both the Bush administration and today’s Republican presidential candidates. But Obama has granted the CIA far too much leeway in carrying out drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. In both countries, the strikes often appear to be backfiring.
Obama and other administration officials insist the drones are used rarely and kill few civilians. In a rare public comment on the program, the president defended the strikes in late January. “I want to make sure the people understand, actually, drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties,” Obama said. “For the most part, they have been very precise precision strikes against al Qaeda and their affiliates. And we are very careful in terms of how it’s been applied.”
But from Pakistan to Yemen to post-American Iraq, drones often spark deep resentment where they operate. When they do attack, they kill as brutally as any weapon of war. The administration’s practice of classifying the strikes as secret only exacerbates local anger and suspicion. Under Obama, drone strikes have become too frequent, too unilateral, and too much associated with the heavy-handed use of American power.
In 2008, I saw this firsthand. Two Afghan colleagues and I were kidnapped by the Taliban and held captive in the tribal areas of Pakistan for seven months. From the ground, drones are terrifying weapons that can be heard circling overhead for hours at a time. They are a potent, unnerving symbol of unchecked American power. At the same time, they were clearly effective, killing foreign bomb-makers and preventing Taliban fighters from gathering in large groups. The experience left me convinced that drone strikes should be carried out — but very selectively.
In the January interview, Obama insisted drone strikes were used only surgically. “It is important for everybody to understand,” he said, “that this thing is kept on a very tight leash.”
Drones, though, are in no way surgical.
IN INTERVIEWS, CURRENT AND FORMER Obama administration officials told me the president and his senior aides had been eager from the outset to differentiate their approach in Pakistan and Afghanistan from Bush’s. Unlike in Iraq, where Democrats thought the Bush administration had been too aggressive, they thought the Bush White House had not been assertive enough with Afghan and Pakistani leaders. So the new administration adopted a unilateral, get-tough approach in South Asia that would eventually spread elsewhere. As candidate Obama vowed in a 2007 speech, referring to Pakistan’s president at the time, “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.”
In his first year in office, Obama approved two large troop surges in Afghanistan and a vast expansion of the number of CIA operatives in Pakistan. The CIA was also given more leeway in carrying out drone strikes in the country’s ungoverned tribal areas, where foreign and local militants plot attacks for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and beyond.
The decision reflected both Obama’s belief in the need to move aggressively in Pakistan and the influence of the CIA in the new administration. To a far greater extent than the Bush White House, Obama and his top aides relied on the CIA for its analysis of Pakistan, according to current and former senior administration officials. As a result, preserving the agency’s ability to carry out counterterrorism, or “CT,” operations in Pakistan became of paramount importance.
“The most important thing when it came to Pakistan was to be able to carry out drone strikes and nothing else,” said a former official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The so-called strategic focus of the bilateral relationship was there solely to serve the CT approach.”
Initially, the CIA was right. Increased drone strikes in the tribal areas eliminated senior al Qaeda operatives in 2009. Then, in July 2010, Pakistanis working for the CIA pulled up behind a white Suzuki navigating the bustling streets of Peshawar. The car’s driver was later tracked to a large compound in the city of Abbottabad. On May 2, 2011, U.S. commandos killed Osama bin Laden there.
The U.S. intelligence presence, though, extended far beyond the hunt for bin Laden, according to former administration officials. At one point, the CIA tried to deploy hundreds of operatives across Pakistan but backed off after suspicious Pakistani officials declined to issue them visas. At the same time, the agency aggressively used the freer hand Obama had given it to launch more drone strikes than ever before.
Established by the Bush administration and Musharraf in 2004, the covert CIA drone program initially carried out only “personality” strikes against a preapproved list of senior al Qaeda members. Pakistani officials were notified before many, but not all, attacks. Between 2004 and 2007, nine such attacks were carried out in Pakistan, according to the New America Foundation.
In 2008, the Bush administration authorized less-restrictive “signature” strikes in the tribal areas. Instead of basing attacks on intelligence regarding a specific person, CIA drone operators could carry out strikes based on the behavior of people on the ground. Operators could launch a drone strike if they saw a group, for example, crossing back and forth over the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. In 2008, the Bush administration carried out 33 strikes.
Under Obama, the drone campaign has escalated rapidly. The number of strikes nearly doubled to 53 in 2009 and then doubled again to 118 in 2010. Former administration officials said the looser rules resulted in the killing of more civilians. Current administration officials insisted that Obama, in fact, tightened the rules on the use of drone strikes after taking office. They said strikes rose under Obama because improved technology and intelligence gathering created more opportunities for attacks than existed under Bush.
But as Pakistani public anger over the spiraling strikes grew, other diplomats expressed concern as well. The U.S. ambassador in Pakistan at the time, Anne Patterson, opposed several attacks, but the CIA ignored her objections. When Cameron Munter replaced Patterson in October 2010, he objected even more vigorously. On at least two occasions, CIA Director Leon Panetta dismissed Munter’s protests and launched strikes, theWall Street Journal later reported. One strike occurred only hours after Sen. John Kerry, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had completed a visit to Islamabad.
A March 2011 strike brought the debate to the White House. A day after Pakistani officials agreed to release CIA contractor Raymond Davis, the agency — again over Munter’s objections — carried out a signature drone strike that the Pakistanis say killed four Taliban fighters and 38 civilians. Already angry about the Davis case, Pakistan’s Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, issued an unusual public statement, saying a group of tribal elders had been “carelessly and callously targeted with complete disregard to human life.” U.S. intelligence officials dismissed the Pakistani complaints and insisted 20 militants had perished. “There’s every indication that this was a group of terrorists, not a charity car wash in the Pakistani hinterlands,” one official told the Associated Press.
Surprised by the vehemence of the official Pakistani reaction, national security advisor Tom Donilon questioned whether signature strikes were worthwhile. Critics inside and outside the U.S. government contended that a program that began as a carefully focused effort to kill senior al Qaeda leaders had morphed into a bombing campaign against low-level Taliban fighters. Some outside analysts even argued that the administration had adopted a de facto “kill not capture” policy, given its inability to close Bush’s Guantánamo Bay prison and create a new detention system.
In April 2011, the director of Pakistan’s intelligence service, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, visited Washington in an effort to repair the relationship, according to news accounts and former administration officials. Just after his visit, two more drone strikes occurred in the tribal areas, which Pasha took as a personal affront. In a rare concession, Panetta agreed to notify Pakistan’s intelligence service before the United States carried out any strike that could kill more than 20 people.
In May, after the bin Laden raid sparked further anger among Pakistani officials, Donilon launched an internal review of how drone strikes were approved, according to a former administration official. But the strikes continued. At the end of May, State Department officials were angered when three missile strikes followed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Pakistan.
As Donilon’s review progressed, an intense debate erupted inside the administration over the signature strikes, according to the Journal. Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the strikes should be more selective. Robert Gates, then the defense secretary, warned that angry Pakistani officials could cut off supplies to U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Clinton warned that too many civilian casualties could strengthen opposition to Pakistan’s weak, pro-American president, Asif Ali Zardari.
The CIA countered that Taliban fighters were legitimate targets because they carried out cross-border attacks on U.S. forces, according to the former official. In June, Obama sided with the CIA. Panetta conceded that no drone strike would be carried out when Pakistani officials visited Washington and that Clinton and Munter could object to proposed strikes. But Obama allowed the CIA director to retain final say.
Last November, the worst-case scenario that Mullen, Gates, and Clinton had warned of came to pass. After NATO airstrikes mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, Kayani demanded an end to all U.S. drone strikes and blocked supplies to U.S. troops in Afghanistan. At the same time, popular opposition to Zardari soared. After a nearly two-month lull that allowed militants to regroup, drone strikes resumed in the tribal areas this past January. But signature strikes are no longer allowed — for the time being, according to the former senior official.
Among average Pakistanis, the strikes played out disastrously. In a 2011 Pew Research Center poll, 97 percent of Pakistani respondents who knew about the attacks said American drone strikes were a “bad thing.” Seventy-three percent of Pakistanis had an unfavorable view of the United States, a 10 percentage point rise from 2008. Administration officials say the strikes are popular with Pakistanis who live in the tribal areas and have tired of brutal jihadi rule. And they contend that Pakistani government officials — while publicly criticizing the attacks — agree in private that they help combat militancy. Making the strikes more transparent could reduce public anger in other parts of Pakistan, U.S. officials concede. But they say some elements of the Pakistani government continue to request that the strikes remain covert.
For me, the bottom line is that both governments’ approaches are failing. Pakistan’s economy is dismal. Its military continues to shelter Taliban fighters it sees as proxies to thwart Indian encroachment in Afghanistan. And the percentage of Pakistanis supporting the use of the Pakistani Army to fight extremists in the tribal areas — the key to eradicating militancy — dropped from a 53 percent majority in 2009 to 37 percent last year. Pakistan is more unstable today than it was when Obama took office.
A similar dynamic is creating even worse results on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Long ignored by the United States, Yemen drew sudden attention after a suicide attack on the USS Cole killed 17 American sailors in the port of Aden in 2000. In 2002, the Bush administration carried out a single drone strike in Yemen that killed Abu Ali al-Harithi, an al Qaeda operative who was a key figure in orchestrating the Cole attack. In the years that followed, the administration shifted its attentions to Iraq, and militants began to regroup.
A failed December 2009 attempt by a militant trained in Yemen to detonate a bomb on a Detroit-bound airliner focused Obama’s attention on the country. Over the next two years, the United States carried out an estimated 20 airstrikes in Yemen, most in 2011. In addition to killing al Qaeda-linked militants, the strikes killed dozens of civilians, according to Yemenis. Instead of decimating the organization, the Obama strikes have increased the ranks of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula from 300 fighters in 2009 to more than 1,000 today, according to Gregory Johnsen, a leading Yemen expert at Princeton University. In January, the group briefly seized control of Radda, a town only 100 miles from the capital, Sanaa. “I don’t believe that the U.S. has a Yemen policy,” Johnsen told me. “What the U.S. has is a counterterrorism strategy that it applies to Yemen.”
The deaths of bin Laden and many of his lieutenants are a step forward, but Pakistan and Yemen are increasingly unstable. Pakistan is a nuclear-armed country of 180 million with resilient militant networks; Yemen, an impoverished, failing state that is fast becoming a new al Qaeda stronghold. “They think they’ve won because of this approach,” the former administration official said, referring to the administration’s drone-heavy strategy. “A lot of us think there is going to be a lot bigger problems in the future.”
THE BACKLASH FROM drone strikes in the countries where they are happening is not the only worry. In the United States, civil liberties and human rights groups are increasingly concerned with the breadth of powers Obama has claimed for the executive branch as he wages a new kind of war.
In the Libya conflict, the administration invoked the drones to create a new legal precedent. Under the War Powers Resolution, the president must receive congressional authorization for military operations within 60 days. When the deadline approached in May, the administration announced that because NATO strikes and drones were carrying out the bulk of the missions, no serious threat of U.S. casualties existed and no congressional authorization was needed. “It’s changed the way politicians talk about what should be the most important thing that a nation engages in,” said Peter W. Singer, a Brookings Institution researcher. “It’s changed the way we in the public deliberate war.”
Last fall, a series of drone strikes in Yemen set another dangerous precedent, according to civil liberties and human rights groups. Without any public legal proceeding, the U.S. government executed three of its own citizens. On Sept. 30, a drone strike killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a charismatic American-born cleric of Yemeni descent credited with inspiring terrorist attacks around the world. Samir Khan, a Pakistani-American jihadist traveling with him, was killed as well. Several weeks later, another strike killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, also a U.S. citizen. Administration officials insisted a Justice Department review had authorized the killings but declined to release the full document.
“The administration has claimed the power to carry out extrajudicial executions of Americans on the basis of evidence that is secret and is never seen by anyone,” said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “It’s hard to understand how that is consistent with the Constitution.”
After criticizing the Bush administration for keeping the details of its surveillance, interrogation, and detention practices secret, Obama is doing the same thing. His administration has declined to reveal the details of how it places people on kill lists, carries out eavesdropping in the United States, or decides whom to detain overseas. The administration is also prosecuting six former government officials on charges of leaking classified information to the media — more cases than all other administrations combined.
Administration officials deny being secretive and insist they have disclosed more information about their counterterrorism practices than the Bush administration, which fiercely resisted releasing details of its “war on terror” and established the covert drone program in Pakistan. Obama administration officials say they have established a more transparent and flexible approach outside Pakistan that involves military raids, drone strikes, and other efforts. They told me that every attack in Yemen was approved by Yemeni officials. Eventually, they hope to make drone strikes joint efforts carried out openly with local governments.
For now, keeping them covert prevents American courts from reviewing their constitutionality, according to Jaffer. He pointed out that if a Republican president followed such policies, the outcry on the left would be deafening. “You have to remember that this authority is going to be used by the next administration and the next administration after that,” Jaffer said. “You need to make sure there are clear limits on what is really unparalleled power.”
TO THEIR CREDIT, Obama and his senior officials have successfully reframed Bush’s global battle as a more narrowly focused struggle against al Qaeda. They stopped using the term “war on terror” and instead described a campaign against a single, clearly identifiable group.
Senior administration officials cite the toppling of Muammar al-Qaddafi as the prime example of the success of their more focused, multilateral approach to the use of force. At a cost of zero American lives and $1 billion in U.S. funding, the Libya intervention removed an autocrat from power in five months. The occupation of Iraq claimed 4,484 American lives, cost at least $700 billion, and lasted nearly nine years.
“The light U.S. footprint had benefits beyond less U.S. lives and resources,” Rhodes told me. “We believe the Libyan revolution is viewed as more legitimate. The U.S. is more welcome. And there is less potential for an insurgency because there aren’t foreign forces present.”
In its most ambitious proposal, the administration is also trying to restructure the U.S. military, implement steep spending cuts, and “right-size” U.S. forces around the world. Under Obama’s plan, the Army would be trimmed by 80,000 soldiers, some U.S. units would be shifted from the Middle East to the Pacific, and more small, covert bases would be opened. Special Forces units that have been vastly expanded in Iraq and Afghanistan would train indigenous forces and carry out counterterrorism raids. Declaring al Qaeda nearly defeated, administration officials say it is time for a new focus.
“Where does the U.S. have a greater interest in 2020?” Rhodes asked. “Is it Asia-Pacific or Yemen? Obviously, the Asia-Pacific region is clearly going to be more important.”
Rhodes has a point, but Pakistan and its nuclear weapons — as well as Yemen and its proximity to vital oil reserves and sea lanes — are likely to haunt the United States for years.
Retired military officials warn that drones and commando raids are no substitute for the difficult process of helping local leaders marginalize militants. Missile strikes that kill members of al Qaeda and its affiliates in Pakistan and Yemen do not strengthen economies, curb corruption, or improve government services. David Barno, a retired lieutenant general who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, believes hunting down senior terrorists over and over again is not a long-term solution.
“How do you get beyond this attrition warfare?” he asked me. “I don’t think we’ve answered that question yet.”
Author: DAVID ROHDE, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and former reporter for the New York Times, is a foreign affairs columnist for Reuters and the Atlantic.