This publication is now archived.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), often referred to as drones, have become increasingly important in U.S. efforts to strike militants in Pakistani regions bordering Afghanistan. In its first eighteen months, the Obama administration authorized more drone attacks in Pakistan than its predecessor did over two terms. UAV strikes in Pakistan have also been effective at eliminating al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership. Since the Obama administration ramped up the covert program in 2009, more than a dozen of top al-Qaeda leaders have been killed (Long War Journal). Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, a founding member of al-Qaeda, was reportedly killed by an American drone strike in May 2010 (CSM). The June 2010 killing of eight militants (NYT) in Pakistan is the most recent reported drone attack.
Although targeting terror suspects with UAVs in official combat areas is deemed legal, the use of the technology outside a declared zone of combat--i.e., Iraq and Afghanistan--has brought international criticism. Complicating the picture in Pakistan is that the UAV-targeting program is believed to be operated by the CIA; a number of disclosures by senior U.S. officials have all-but confirmed the operations. The distinction between military applications and covert CIA use of drones has become a point of contention, as are issues pertaining to collateral damage and legal justification.
A Drone Strategy Embraced
Today, the United States reportedly operates at least two separate drone programs in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area. One is run by the U.S. military, which runs support and surveillance missions in Afghanistan. The other is thought to be run by the CIA, which operates under a veil of secrecy in the tribal areas of Pakistan (there are also reports that U.S. Special Operations Forces have deployed the technology in Pakistan (The Nation), and the Pentagon is expanding a military-run effort (Wired) in collaboration with the Pakistani army).
While the Obama administration does not acknowledge its covert targeting of militants with drones, CIA chief Leon Panetta in May 2009 called unmanned airstrikes "the only game in town (CNN)" in targeting al-Qaeda leadership in the tribal areas. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, in early 2009 publicly acknowledged U.S.-Pakistani drone cooperation (LAT).
"There is tremendous damage being done to the international rule of law, which requires accountability, when these killings are being done based on secret justifications." -- Hina Shamsi, Senior Advisor, Project on Extrajudicial Executions, NYU
Military leaders have also offered veiled praise of a program CFR Fellow Micah Zenko considers the "worst kept covert secret in the history of U.S. foreign policy." Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, told CFR.org in May 2010 that while the United States doesn’t publicly discuss "the source of these unexplained explosions that take place in [Pakistan’s] Federally Administered Tribal Areas," drone strikes have nonetheless put "enormous pressure" on extremist organizations operating there. The New York Times reported in December 2009 that the Obama administration ordered an increase in the covert use of unmanned Predator aircraft operated by the CIA in Pakistan. Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called for a second expansion in July 2010 (Politico). At the time of Levin’s remarks, the Obama administration had authorized nearly one hundred missile strikes by Predator and Reaper drones on Pakistani territory, according to an accounting of the strikes based on media reports by the Washington-based New America Foundation.
K. Alan Kronstadt, a specialist in South Asian affairs for the Congressional Research Service, writes (PDF) that the bulk of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have taken place in two Pakistani tribal agencies--North and South Waziristan. Both the New America Foundation reporting and Kronstadt’s assessments are based on published media reports from the region.
The Mechanics of ’Push-Button’ Warfare
Drone aircrafts range in size, shape, and portability, from hand-launched horizontal-landing surveillance units like the Wasp III, to long-range high-endurance armed systems like the MQ-9 Reaper and MQ-1B Predator.
Capabilities also vary widely. Smaller units like the RQ-11 Raven are not armed, but carry multiple cameras and GPS navigational systems to give soldiers in the field real-time aerial reconnaissance. By contrast, larger systems--including the Reaper and Predator--are equipped with high-tech gadgetry, from laser targeting markers to Hellfire missiles. These systems, which can be remotely piloted from anywhere in the world, are able to hover over targets for nearly twenty-four hours high above the Earth’s surface before launching precision strikes.
It’s unclear how many Reaper and Predator drones are stationed in or operating above Pakistan at any given time. What is clear is that the technology has become ubiquitous in war zones. Peter W. Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who has studied the use of drones in war, estimates there are roughly 7,000 unmanned systems (PDF) currently in use by the military, "ranging from 48-foot-long Predators to micro-aerial vehicles that a single soldier can carry in their backpack." Of these, the U.S. army controls the lion’s share, and drones are considered the "eyes" of U.S. ground forces, an inseparable part (PDF) of how the United States fights in the twenty-first century. "Unmanned platforms are the emerging lethal and non-lethal weapons of choice that will continue to transform how the army prosecutes future operations and ultimately save lives," predicts the U.S. army (PDF).
Still, there are technical hurdles that have to be addressed before drones completely fulfill their promise. Reports that some unmanned systems may be susceptible to hacking (WSJ) have raised concerns that the technology may be vulnerable to enemy penetration. Air Force operators have also lost control of drones flying over Afghanistan, prompting questions about what measures are in place to keep the systems from "falling into enemy hands when they go rogue" (Popular Science).
Ethical and Strategic Issues
Civilian casualties are another significant concern. The New America Foundation, for instance, found that of the roughly one thousand to fourteen hundred deaths attributed to drone strikes since 2004, approximately one-third were civilians. U.S. intelligence officials dispute this calculation and insist smaller missiles and better targeting procedures have limited collateral damage (WashPost).
"[Drones] are the emerging lethal and non-lethal weapons of choice that will continue to transform how the army prosecutes future operations and ultimately save lives." --U.S. Army’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Roadmap 2010-2035
The strikes may also have the unintended consequence of creating enemies where none existed or providing militants with a justification for striking Western targets. Both Faisal Shahzad, who confessed to the failed Times Square bombing in May 2010, and the group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, implicated in a suicide-bomb attempt on a Detroit-bound airliner in December 2009, justified their actions as attempts to avenge U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. Daniel Byman, a counterterrorism expert at the Brookings Institution, writes that targeted killing programs have been counterproductive in other states in the past, most prominently Israel, evidenced by its efforts to decimate Hamas (Foreign Affairs).
A Legal Minefield
Obama administration officials have defended drone strikes as a legal means of self defense in its armed conflict with al-Qaeda and the Taliban post-9/11. Without publicly commenting on the CIA-led program in Pakistan, the State Department’s senior legal adviser, Harold Hongju Koh, used a March 2010 speech to defend the tactic. Koh said: "U.S. targeting practices, including lethal operations conducted with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, comply with all applicable law, including the laws of war."
Kenneth Anderson, a professor of law at American University, says that Koh’s self-defense argument is consistent with past responses to transnational terrorism. "Self-defense operations are not governed by the full panoply of treaty laws that attach to armed conflict," Anderson told lawmakers in April 2010 (PDF), noting operations must still adhere to legal standards such as proportionality. Without commenting on specific programs, the CIA has defended its tactics as legal (CNN).
Perhaps the most prominent opponent of the administration’s legal reasoning is Philip Alston, a UN special rapporteur who has studied so-called "targeted killings." The U.S. position "is an important starting point," Alston wrote in a May 2010 report, but "it does not address some of the most central legal issues including: the scope of the armed conflict in which the U.S. asserts it is engaged, the criteria for individuals who may be targeted and killed, the existence of any substantive or procedural safeguards to ensure the legality and accuracy of killings, and the existence of accountability mechanisms."
"It used to be that we’d see statements going all the way to the level of outrage [from Pakistani leaders]. We’re simply not seeing that anymore." --K. Alan Kronstadt, Specialist in South Asian Affairs, Congressional Research Service
A lack of transparency--specifically the Obama administration’s reluctance to publicly discuss a program that while ostensibly covert, has been widely reported on--is at the center of Alston’s argument. For one, the CIA has never disclosed its targeting list, nor the criteria the agency uses to determine who can be killed by drone strikes. By contrast, the U.S. military in August 2009 made public portions of its list of approved targets in Afghanistan, and detailed how targets related to the drug trade are selected (PDF). Hina Shamsi, a human rights lawyer at New York University who worked with Alston on his study, said Washington’s failure to provide full accountability for the CIA’s actions in Pakistan could be disastrous if widely copied. "There is tremendous damage being done to the international rule of law, which requires accountability, when these killings are being done based on secret justifications," Shamsi says.
Other issues complicate the legal picture. For one, if Pakistan has given consent to U.S. drone strikes inside its territory, the CIA’s efforts may be on firmer footing. But even among those who consider drones a necessary evil in the war against Pakistan-based militants, there is near-consensus that the Obama administration must answer a growing list of concerns, such as who constitutes a viable target, how target lists are developed, and what the rules of engagement are.
Says CFR’s Zenko: "Nothing that compromises operational security should be declassified, but the scope, direction, and dimensions of the program--how they fit within U.S. national security strategy--are very open to public debate."
In March 2009, Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry declared the strikes "a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty" that are "counterproductive." But as Kronstadt notes, officials from both countries may have reached a quiet understanding in the fall of 2008; at least three Predators that can be operated by the CIA are reportedly deployed to a secret Pakistani airbase, he writes. "It used to be that we’d see statements going all the way to the level of outrage," Kronstadt said in an interview with CFR.org. "We’re simply not seeing that anymore."
One reason may be the rising tide of militancy in Pakistan’s tribal regions. Long seen as a strategic asset of Islamabad’s intelligence service, groups like the Pakistan Taliban have been targeting Pakistani cities. Even a majority of residents of the tribal regions have come to accept drone strikes as a necessary evil in the war against Taliban militancy, according to one poll conducted in early 2009. That may explain why Pakistan appears to be helping supply human targeting intelligence to the United States, and why Pakistani agents are "increasingly involved in target selection and strike coordination," according to Reuters.
Pakistan, meanwhile, has also requested direct control (Sunday Times) of UAVs over Pakistani territory. The country’s military leaders are said to desire armed drones for their own use, but the U.S. Department of Defense has agreed to sell Pakistan unarmed Shadow UAVs for reconnaissance missions only.
The Road Ahead
The use of a lethal tactic against a suspected enemy from an uncontested distance in the lawless and largely inaccessible portions of Pakistan’s tribal areas may make tactical and political sense, some analysts say. But as journalist Jane Mayer reported in October 2009, as public support for the war in Afghanistan wanes, the use of drones in the region has increased with little to no public debate (New Yorker).
As a candidate, President Obama promised to target terrorists that had found safe-haven in Pakistan. "I don’t believe in assassinations, but Osama bin Laden has declared war on us, killed 3,000 people, and under existing law, including international law, when you’ve got a military target like bin Laden, you take him out," the then-presidential candidate said in June 2007.
Aside from back-channel political discussion in Congress to transfer the Pakistan portion of the drone campaign to the Pentagon--a move the U.S. military has already partially undertaken--there seems to be little movement in Washington to take on the drone issue. But pressure appears to be building from within academic and legal communities for the Obama administration to come clean on its CIA drone strikes.
CFR’s Steven Simon, writing in the journal Survival with Jonathan Stevenson of the U.S. Naval War College, argues that Obama should consider taking steps to "publicly amplify the operational necessity" of drone strikes by providing greater detail about the dangers posed by terrorist targets (a move that would, in turn, disclose the administration’s targeting list); and disclose the "basic contours" of the targeting-review process.