Raising the Curtain on U.S. Drone Strikes
Despite recent successes, unmanned drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan remain a controversial tactic. CFR’s Micah Zenko says the Obama administration must shed new details on the "worst kept covert secret in the history of U.S. foreign policy."
June 2, 2010 10:43 am (EST)
- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
The apparent killing of al-Qaeda’s No. 3 in Afghanistan, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, underscores the Obama administration’s stepped-up use of unmanned drones to target militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas. But despite the successes, drones remain a controversial tactic in the view of some experts. Senior UN officials are challenging the use of unmanned drones by U.S. intelligence agencies. CFR’s Micah Zenko, who has studied the use of drones in the Afghan-Pakistan region, says while the technology does have its place in war, the Obama administration must shed new details on the tactic to justify their continued use. "Predator strikes are the worst kept covert secret in the history of U.S. foreign policy," Zenko says. "[S]ince they are such a significant part of U.S. national security strategy, they should be debated, not simply applauded."
Predator drones have been credited with the removal of top al-Qaeda and Taliban figures from the tribal areas of Pakistan, the most recent example being the apparent killing of Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, al-Qaeda’s No. 3. How critical are these unmanned strikes to the mission in the Afghan-Pakistan war zone?
Unmanned drone strikes are an essential tool for killing terrorists who provide guidance and operational support for international terrorism. The apparent killing of al-Yazid represents an important small victory, given his connections to terrorist plots abroad, and his declarations last summer that al-Qaeda would use nuclear weapons against the United States (RFE/RL). Such targeted killings, however, are only one element of national power that is part of the Obama administration’s six-month-old Afghanistan and Pakistan Regional Stabilization Strategy.
As the al-Yazid strike suggests, the Obama administration has picked up the pace of using drones in Pakistan. How did the United States manage to expand its unmanned drone program into a sovereign state that is not a declared warzone?
The decision was made after 9/11 by President Bush to authorize the CIA to capture or kill a small number of high-value al-Qaeda targets. This happens with CIA-controlled drones in November 2002 in Yemen, where a suspected mastermind of the USS Cole bombing is targeted and killed. And then in 2004 or 2005, the CIA also is put in command and control of drones only for Pakistan, as opposed to the Pentagon-controlled drones in Afghanistan. Today, some of the CIA-controlled drones are flown out of Pakistan and reportedly some others from Afghanistan. But these are somewhat compartmentalized from Department of Defense strikes, which happen in a declared warzone, which is in Afghanistan. Pakistan is not a declared warzone, but a sovereign country. So these can only happen with some level of cooperation with the Pakistani government.
What kind of cooperation?
If you’re taking off from Pakistani airfields, the Pakistani government knows this is going on. The Pakistani media has also shown photographs of drones [on the ground in Pakistan], and there’s lots of reporting of U.S. contractors and U.S. officials at some of these airfields. Early on, the U.S. government received permission from Islamabad to go after a very small number of people, primarily Arabs or Uzbeks. Only non-Pakistanis were permitted to be targeted, and if you look at the people who were targeted through the first dozen drone strikes over the first three or four years, they’re almost all non-Pakistani. There was some intelligence support provided by the Pakistani government reportedly at the time, but what happens is in the summer of 2008 the U.S. government starts pushing it and going after targets on their own.
The question is whether or not [drone attacks] prohibit more comprehensive and coordinated strategies that are required to deal with the underlying problems of why foreign terrorists are allowed to operate from [Pakistan].
The Pakistani government can resist and say, "This is our own sovereign territory." But if the United States launches strikes without the Pakistani government knowing, it looks bad. So there’s a very careful dance where the United States then starts going after some targets which are a threat to the Pakistani regime in Islamabad. In the summer of 2008, the CIA becomes, in effect, the counterinsurgency air force of the government of Pakistan, going after individuals and organizations that are dedicated to the overthrow of the regime in Islamabad, more so than they are dedicated to attacking the United States or U.S. allies abroad. This is clear to the Pakistani government, and they begin to provide greater intelligence; they provide a little more cover for the United States to do more drone strikes. It’s estimated that at the end of the Bush administration, there were only six or seven Predator drones in Pakistan. Reportedly, this has doubled in the last year or so of the Obama administration, all with the explicit authorization of the Pakistani government.
So you’re saying Pakistanis have begun to see drone strikes as in their interest?
It does benefit the Pakistani government, and evidence of that is that they’ve asked repeatedly for armed drones [currently, the United States only sells unarmed drones to Pakistan]. There are specific U.S. laws which prohibit the export of lethal military equipment to some countries for certain purposes since this is a highly classified technology which the U.S. doesn’t want to export. There are also some concerns about Pakistan’s ability to not kill civilians [as well as] who they would really go after if they had it. So the United States has provided increased surveillance drones to the direct control of Pakistan, and now it looks like they’ll be selling them directly to the Pakistani government.
You mentioned targeting of civilians. How good is the United States at targeting terrorists and avoiding civilian casualties?
It’s very difficult to know how many civilians or unintended targets have been struck by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. Within minutes [of a strike], casualties are withdrawn by militants and they’re all buried by sunset in accordance with Muslim law. The United States in some instances is able to get DNA samples or people on the ground who can identify exactly who was killed, but it’s very hard to know. I was told recently by a very senior U.S. official that in the last six months, they knew that only one civilian had been killed. So it’s likely that, one, we’re better at doing it; and, two, the intelligence provided by the Pakistani government is significantly better.
Are insurgents figuring out ways to defeat them?
Targeted Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents in northwest Pakistan have responded to the increasing efficiency of the drone strikes by developing standard defensive tactics. [They’ve begun] killing suspected informants who provide intelligence, destroying communication towers that can better intercept satellite and cell phone signals; they’ve dispersed into smaller cells; they’ve moved into heavily populated areas where it is very unlikely that the United States will attempt strikes. So they’ve adapted defensive strategies in response.
So then what’s controversial about the drone program?
As the senior counterterrorism official in the State Department Daniel Benjamin said in early 2010, the tribal areas of Pakistan remain the beating heart of al-Qaeda. Despite the reporting that there are growing elements within places like Somalia and Yemen, al-Qaeda’s central core leadership remains in Pakistan. This is after eight years and roughly 125 drone strikes. The question is whether or not [drone attacks] prohibit more comprehensive and coordinated strategies that are required to deal with the underlying problems of why foreign terrorists are allowed to operate from there.
You’re suggesting it’s a short-term fix then?
It’s a tactic, not a strategy. That’s nothing people disagree on. The question is whether these strikes are in any way coordinated with a comprehensive campaign. And there’s no evidence in my opinion that there is.
It’s very difficult to know how many civilians or unintended targets have been struck by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. Within minutes [of a strike], casualties are withdrawn by militants and they’re all buried by sunset in accordance with Muslim law.
What are the legal issues surrounding the increased use of drones in Pakistan?
In March 2010, Harold Koh, who is the legal advisor for the State Department, made the first public defense of whether or not [drones] are legal. He gave a long speech at the American Society of International Law. At the very end of it, he had a little section on the uses of force and he said that they follow both U.S. domestic law and international treaty obligations. It’s unclear to what extent this is true. There’s a special representative to the [UN] Human Rights Council, Phillip Alston, who has tried to dig into what the legal justification (NYT) really is on this issue. Some of this will be resolved by the end of 2010, when the United States is required to appear before the Human Rights Council . . . to do what’s called the universal periodic review. One of the issues that will certainly come up is the legality of uses of force outside of warzones. So we’ll see a little about what the Obama administration’s position is on their legality at that session.
You’ve called for public debate on drones (WashTimes). What would that achieve?
Predator strikes are the worst kept covert secret in the history of U.S. foreign policy. They’ve been reported on significantly in Pakistani and U.S. press. There have been slips of the tongue by many administration officials about their existence. There’s been photographic evidence provided by Pakistani journalists as well as others. The only time the administration acknowledges them is to talk about how successful they are. As we know, any national security program which involves human beings is fallible.
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. I like to describe it in terms of U.S. nuclear weapons. I know roughly the size of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal, their type, the warhead lifecycles, where they’re deployed, what the military doctrine is for them. I don’t know how to make a bomb. I shouldn’t know how to make a bomb--that should never be public. War plans for how bombs are going to be used shouldn’t be known. But since they are such a significant part of U.S. national security strategy, they should be debated, not simply applauded.