Tragedy of the Drone: The Long-term Costs of Obama's Favorite Weapon
by Younus Abdullah Muhammad
In the immediate aftermath of the recent Boston bombings, many commentators compared the crime scene to an IED explosion on the Iraq and Afghanistan frontiers. Those comparisons ceased as soon as the perpetrators were confirmed to be Islamic terrorists, a conscious effort by the establishment to retain the notion that America's war on terror is winding down. Or it may have been part of a pernicious cognitive dissonance in American culture, one that refuses to acknowledge any link between the threat of Islamic terrorism domestically and U.S. foreign policy. The mainstream press may have revealed that the surviving bomber, Jawed Tsarnaev, identified Iraq and Afghanistan as motivating factors but its commentary hardly made any connection to what has increasingly become an elephant in the room- a growing link between the reliance of U.S. drone strikes and the rise of Isalmic radicalization, both homegrown and abroad. It is time to acknowledge this connection and conversate about its long-term ramifications before it is too late.
Immortal Bostonian Robert Kennedy once remarked, amidst the debacle of Vietnam, that "tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live." The shadow overhanging America's sustained war of terror, its blunders in Afghanistan and Iraq, represent similar tragedy. Like Vietnam, they damaged not only America's military but the make-up of its domestic society and its international reputation. Unlike Vietnam, it seems these alterations may prove permanent. The Obama administration, in its efforts to reestablish global prominence, has used drone attacks as a primary means of fighting a more strategic, perpetual war. One aimed to move on from tragedy by altering the perception that the U.S. is an occupying force in the Muslim world. A special, covert war designed to accompany other indirect efforts that so too betray the very principles that facilitated the U.S.'s own rise to international prominence not so long ago.
Drone attacks kill large numbers of civilians. They stretch the confines of international law. They endanger a sense of security, first for those abroad where citizens reports, "drone attacks are always on my mind" and then in domestic society where retaliation is feared. They aid radicals in recruitment and are damaging America's diplomatic leverage. These issues may have serious long-term consequences and hinder relations with a rapidly altering Muslim world. The short-term benefits are also not to be minimized. There is a very real threat to the U.S. homeland but pondering the potential costs of what has become Obama's favorite weapon poses the prospect that future observers will hardly hold Obama's legacy as a return to wisdom, but rather as an unwitting facilitation of the tragedy of perpetual war.
Honest reflections on U.S. foreign policy oftentimes induce an uncomfortable awareness of a coarse American hubris, something Peter Beinert classifies in his book on the subject as, "our false innocence and unearned pride." The use of drones should hearken to a deeper hypocrisy associated with the unequal application of the principle of law, an exceptionalism that has plagued the American experience through its national conquest, slavery, and major international wars. Drone attacks are, in many ways, the epitome of this contradiction. A few weeks before the tragic attacks in Boston, a NATO airstrike mistakenly dropped a bomb in Afghanistan that killed 10 children and nearly 50 civilians. However, because the American public is particularly disinterested in coverage of that floundering war, the act went by barely mentioned. We know none of the victims names and few are even aware of its occurrence. While NATO troops were not deliberately targeting the civilians and while that does nothing to justify horrendous crimes of barbarity like the one committed in Boston, the distinction in coverage should be sufficient to initiate contemplation about the world we're forging going forward.
Alongside that disregarded event in Afghanistan, a debate about the increasingly clandestine approach to war has escalated at home. Unfortunately, that debate has more to do with efforts to normalize the use of drones through a more transparent, legal framework and less to do with the consequences for foreign civilians or an acknowledgement of the unequal application of the rule of law. In a March 12, 2013 meeting between President Obama and Democratic Senators, Jay Rockefeller confronted the administration for refusing to share legal memos that outlined the legal justification for its drone campaign, including the assassination of American citizens. Only a week before that, three democratic senators protested the confirmation of John Brennan as CIA director. Brennan, one of the drone program's most ardent defenders, possesses the "playbook," a classified initiative that seeks to permenately codify the present operating procedures of the "targeted killing" program. One of those democratic senators, Ron Wyden, would join Rand Paul's 13-hour tirade demanding a promise that Obama would never use drones against Americans on U.S. soil.
The Boston attacks temporarily diverted public attention from Rand Paul's filibuster, but senate hearings on April 22 revived the debate. In those hearings, Senator Dick Durbin, chairman of the Constitution subcommittee emphasized that, "there are long-term consequences, especially when the airstrikes kill innocent civilians; that's why many in the national security community are concerned that we may be undermining our counterterrorism efforts if we do not carefully measure the benefits and costs of targeted killing." Still, the preponderant view is that mere transparency is sufficient. As Senator Lindsey Graham described it, "if you want to talk about transparency, count me in." Conversation about the drone program has also increased in the news and has become a hot topic on the internet.
The heightened public controversy started last spring, when Obama administration officials deliberately leaked information to the NY Times about Obama as "executioner in chief," perusing "kill lists" on "Terror Tuesday's" and in an effort to portray him as tough during the run-up to reelection. That was followed by Obama's first explicit acknowledgement of the drone program's existence. At the time the announcement went well. No conservatives criticisized the use of drones during the presidential campaign. The U.S. expanded its arenas of drone operation. The ACLU demanded evidence for the targeting of Anwar Awlaki, the American citizen killed in Yemen. Then a report from Stanford and NYU law schools found that 881 civilians - 175 of them children - had been killed. The public started to contemplate the consequences. Politicians followed. Massive protests over an anti-Muslim film, terrorism in Benghazi, Algeria and elsewhere, resentment of U.S. failure to intervene in Syria, malaise in the lands of the Arab Spring, frustration over Afghanistan and other events kept relations with the Muslim world in clear view. Now, 13 years after its inception, a debate about the drone program's secrecy is advancing.
The history of the unmanned drone does not begin with President Obama however. It was initiated during the CIA's pre-9-11 struggle against Al-Qaeda. After the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the Clinton administration stepped up its efforts against bin Laden and his movement ordering cruise missile strikes against six Al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. In January 2000, the NSC forwarded a memo to the CIA requesting clear intelligence and identification of bin Laden in order to kill him. The CIA's Counterterrorism Center had to devise a means of assassination, as the order required no boots on the ground. They explored using lasers, long-range fixed optics, land sensors, even hot air balloons but ultimately settled on attaining intelligence with the Predator drone, an Air Force contraption used effectively in the Balkans. In late 2000, a Predator filmed bin Laden as he arrived at a compound in Kandahar, but the Clinton administration rejected requests for a cruise missile attack. They feared the ramifications of targeted assassination in a foreign land.
The reluctance to initiate a targeted assassination policy continued into the Bush-era as well. The program advanced toward the drone's armament with Hellfire missiles and, only months before 9-11, tests were conducted on a makeshift bin Laden compound in Nevada. Burton Gellner in his Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency (2008) documented that attainment; he wrote, "By whatever providence, the U.S. government now had in its hands what one participant called 'the holy grail of a 3-year quest' - a weapon that could find and kill bin Laden in real time...[but] the vice president- like his colleagues had other priorities." A complicated legal debate ensued over who would control the trigger. That debate ended with the attacks on 9-11, when President Bush granted it to the CIA.
At its inception, the technical sophistication of the drone program made for a fascinating story, one of innovation and overcoming obstacles that tapped into the ethos of the American narrative. The technology certainly saved countless American lives but also took the lives of many foreign civilians. In The World is Flat, the 2005 pre-financial crisis laudatory book of American-led globalization, Thomas Friedman discussed his first contact with the Predator in Iraq and proposed that the technology had, "flattened the U.S. military hierarchy, empowering low-level officers in Nevada with information previously reserved for the top brass." Consequently, "the days when only senior officers had the big picture is over." For Friedman and most of the American establishment drones were as American as apple pie. He concluded his segment with a tale from U.S. ambassador Nick Burns, who remarked that his first encounter with the technology was in 2004 at Centcom Headquarters in Qatar when he noticed 4 flat-screen TV's behind General John Abizid. As Friedman described it, "On one screen it was Pedro Martinez versus Derek Jeter and on the other three it was jihadists versus the First Cavalry." This marked the beginning of what become a star-struck romance, initiated in fascination, but some years later trending toward abuse.
Former CIA officer Henry Crumpton accounted the almost accidental nature of the program's development in his book The Art of Intelligence (2012), "By 2011 some pundits, in a vigorous defense of President Obama's employment of armed Predators, noted that drone attacks have become a centerpiece of national security policy. Some experts would proclaim the armed Predator the most accurate weapon in the history of war. In 2001 we had no idea that would be the case. We just wanted verification of our human intelligence, a way to employ our intelligence and eliminate Osama bin Laden." My how things have changed.
9-11 certainly altered the dynamics. It is hardly surprising that there was little contemplation about the long-term effects of deploying drones and other special operations in immediate efforts to dismantle an al-Qaeda organization that numbered in the hundreds directly after 9-11. Strikes were already a cornerstone of the U.S.'s war on terror by the end of President Bush's second term. But that reliance increased drastically under Obama. There were 45 reported strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas during the entire Bush administration. In 2009, President Obama's inaugural year, 51 Predator attacks occurred there. That was followed by over a hundred attacks in 2010 and 2011 when targets were expanded to include low-level operatives. There was a decrease to 48 in the reelection year of 2012. Nevertheless, targets expanded to include American citizens and the breadth of operations expanded into Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere with drone surveillance across the globe.
Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars (2011) recounted a December 2008 meeting between then Senator Obama and CIA Director Michael Hayden and Michael McConnell, Director of National Intelligence. Apparently Hayden informed Obama that clandestine, lethal counterterrorism programs were active in over 60 countries. He also assured the soon-to-be president that the CIA not only "owned" the skies in Pakistan, but entire entities of the Iraqi government and security forces and foreign intelligence services such as the Jordanian General Intelligence Department. Only a year after the meeting, a double-agent introduced to the CIA by way of their "owned" Jordanian intelligence agency blew himself up at an American base in Khost, Afghanistan, killing himself and 7 CIA officers. An Al-Qaeda higher-up praised the attacks stating it was to, "avenge the good martyrs" killed by U.S. drone strikes.
Drone usage has also already helped to exasperate the rising threat of homegrown extremism. The Times Square bomber Faisal Shazaad, an American of Pakistani descent, traveled to the Taliban to learn to build bombs and not the other way around. At sentencing, when asked for justification, he explained, "Well, the drone hits in Afghanistan and Iraq they don't see children, they don't see anybody. They kill women, children, they kill everybody. It's a war, and in wars, they kill people. They're killing all Muslims." Revelations about the older Tsarnaev brother traveling to Russia document another similar situation. The drone assassination of Anwar Awlaki in Yemen, an Islamic preacher with tens of thousands of ardent western followers, has yet to be avenged but his popularity has only risen after death.
The recent Boston bombings will likely be offered as a justification for sustained drone attacks and special operations. But it will be interesting to see if the coincident political push for transparency induces an increase or decrease in public support. A Pew Research Center poll last year showed that 56% of Americans support drone attacks targeting terrorists with 53% very concerned about their endangering civilians. 65% were worried drone attacks could lead to retaliation and 57% feared the attacks may damage America's reputation abroad. The attacks have certainly become part of the underlying grievances that sustain calls to target Americans and while the mainstream press, pundits and politicians are careful to reference only the winding-down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as motivations for the Boston attacks, an anticipated expansion of reliance on such special-operations will only increase resentment and animosity against them abroad.
As the Council of Foreign Relations U.S. National Security expert Linda Robinson recently explained it, high-tech special operations like drone strikes, once considered extraordinary, have become commonplace but this reliance alongside the media's focus and fascination "has encouraged a misinterpretation of such actions as quick, easy solution that allow Washington to avoid prolonged, messy wars. In fact, raids and drone strikes are tactics that are rarely decisive and often incur significant political and diplomatic costs."
Stanley McCrystal, key proponent of the "find, fix, finish, exploit, analyze, and disseminate" system seems to agree. In an interview before the Boston bombings he stated that, "although to the United States, a drone strike seems to have very little risk and very little pain, at the receiving end, it feels like war. Americans have got to understand that. If we were to use our technological capabilities carelessly - I don't think we do, but there's always the danger that you will- then we should not be upset when someone responds with their equivalent, which is a suicide bomb in Central Park, because that's what they can respond with." Asked if reliance on covert operations takes away from indirect action, such as trainings and building local capacity, he said, "if you go back in history, I can't find a covert fix that solved a problem long-term." And that is a serious issue, worthy of serious contemplation.
Drones may be effective in taking out immediate Al-Qaeda operatives. As the Obama administration liked to cite during its reelection campaign, 22 of 30 Al-Qaeda higher-ups were killed from 2009-2012, including of course Osama bin Laden. However these leaders have already been replaced, and the threat is mutating not receding. Hillary Clinton explained shortly before wrapping up her tenure as secretary of state that, "We've got to have a better strategy... the Arab Spring has ushered in an era when Al-Qaeda is on the rise." Because policies like drone attacks make it all the more difficult to deal with the leaders of Muslim majority nations and their publics, the U.S. may be sacrificing any ability to effect long-term social, political and economic change in order to achieve limited, immediate military victories.
The U.S. public's frustration, after over a decade of war in the Middle East, has helped push calls for U.S. foreign policy to "pivot" toward Asia. However, that sensible policy, announced in 2011 will prove difficult. Events in the Middle East continue to create headlines and part of the transition to Asia was to include efforts at "offshore balancing," a repositioning of force into the Atlantic Ocean, the end of Iraq and Afghan direct occupation, a shift to clandestine special-operations dependence and the funding, training and use of proxy, localized forces. The vacuum created by this American retreat coincides with Arab Spring alteration and risks creating a void conducive to the massive expansion of radical anti-American populism. It has already helped spur the ascension of political Islamic parties, the progression of region-wide sectarian conflict, a rebranding effort by Al-Qaeda and other important alterations. As Richard Haas wrote recently in Foreign Affairs, "The irony is inescapable: a decade ago, Washington chose to immerse itself in the region when it did not have to, carrying out two decade long wars of choice that involved a total of more than two million American servicemen and servicewomen and ended up costing more than 6,000 American dead, 40,000 wounded, $1.5 trillion, and enormous time and energy on the part of policymakers; but now that most Americans want little to do with the region, U.S. officials are finding it difficult to turn away. It is easy to imagine the president echoing Michael Corleone's lament in the Godfather, Part III: "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in."
A reliance on drones and other technical capacities may be great for the military-industrial complex but it is becoming increasingly evident that effective counterterrorism relies on human capital. The Washington Post's 2010 report Top Secret America highlighted a "top-secret world... so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs." Still, that effort failed to identify the terror threats of Nidal Hassan, Umar Farouk, Faisal Shazaad Najibullah Zazi and recently the Tsarnaev brothers. It was a private citizen that discovered the surviving Boston bomber and not the federal, state and local law enforcement officials that sealed off an entire Boston suburb for almost 24 hours. A reliance on technology like drones cannot resolve the underlying issues that perpetuate the metastasizing threat of Islamic terrorism.
In fact, drones have hardly stopped the rise of terrorism in either Afghanistan or Pakistan. High level operatives have been replaced and the heightened awareness of the drone program's existence serves as powerful propaganda for Al-Qaeda. Few today remember that America was once considered the world's upholder of human rights. Today drone attacks are part and parcel of a series of controversial interventions that hinder America's ability to effect positive change in the Muslim world, a barrier made all the more complicated in the post-Arab Spring environment. The threat of Islamic extremism can only be minimized where military and security tactics consider that any long-term strategy must address core grievances. That will require statecraft that induces non-cosmetic political and economic alteration. But it is easy to dismiss call for liberalism, human rights and democracy when the U.S. implements policies that violate the very principles upon which those calls stand.
A 2010 Rand Corporation study on the end of 269 terror groups since 1968 found that 43% ended through politicization and 40% by means of policing. That was contrasted by 7% ended by military force and 10% in victory. The analysis documented that terrorist groups usually end for two major reasons: "They decide to adopt nonviolent tactics and join the political process or local law enforcement agencies arrest or kill key members of the group." That explains efforts to both accept a role for political Islam and to transition toward a law-enforcement and localized approach in battling transnational jihadists. However, that outcome could be even more catastrophic. The use of Predator drone attacks and special-ops in collaboration with proxy forces will not defeat the enemy, and they may induce elections of Islamist governments willing to broker peace deals with those the U.S. drone program is trying to kill.
There is an indication this may have just occurred in Pakistan, where the U.S. spent the early part of its Obama-era pressing the Zardari regime to cancel a peace deal with the Taliban and to instead press militarily into the Northwest Frontier Province. In retaliation, the Taliban unleashed a wave of terror, justified by claims the government and military were taking orders from Washington and for permitting attacks by U.S. drones. Recent parliamentary elections propelled Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League to power and birthed a three-party system with the immaculate success of Imran Khan's Tehreek e-Insaf party. Both party platforms called for the cessation of security cooperation with America and especially the end of drones. As security expert Anthony Cordesman described it, "The initial indicators are that U.S.- Pakistani tensions won't get better and Pakistan's limited support of U.S. and Afghan efforts to deal with the Afghan Taliban will only get worse." Anti-American rhetoric is already politically popular throughout the Muslim world and similar outcomes could matriculate through the wave of democracy recently ushered in.
Barack Obama was inaugurated on January 20, 2009. Two days later he signed an order to ban torture, close CIA black sites and shut down Guantanamo. The next morning two drone attacks killed 15 people in Pakistan, none of them Al-Qaeda higher-ups but according to the CIA director, "at least 5 militants." That leaves 10 more. Today Bush and Obama administration officials acknowledge that Guantanamo has created many more enemies than it deterred or detained. Perhaps it is time to make a similar connection when we consider the use of drones.
Like Guantanamo, it is easy to understand why drones are convenient. The U.S. is at war with a transnational and ideological enemy. A ground war in Pakistan could be much more severe. Failure to intervene in some way would almost certainly lead to increased attacks on U.S. soil. Drone attacks place fewer Americans in harms way. But we must reflect on the long-term ramifications. Kevin Drum, writing in Mother Jones explains, "Drones have become stealth weapons both politically and technologically," in Washington at least "everybody's in favor of them." Yet one must wonder if the American public might feel a different way were it to receive less romanticized and more in-depth analysis from its press and government.
It is time to call for a drone program that preserves the democratic notion of transparency. The calculus and laws associated with attacks should be documented and evidence that targets were plotting attacks against American targets abroad or to the homeland should be provided in timely releases. Targets should be limited to high-level operatives. Pre-screening mechanisms should minimize civilian loss. And because other countries will soon be producing their own drone technology and programs, the U.S. should lead efforts to codify a set of standards applicable to all under international law; few countries accept the present U.S. legal justification for targeted killings. Additionally, the U.S. should emulate calls for negotiations, not only with the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan but the Al-Qaeda network at large. Calling for an immediate cessation of terrorism in exchange for participation in a democratic political process is not appeasement but a means of upholding what we like to call "American" ideals. As President Obama said while accepting a premature and, in retrospect, totally unjustified Nobel Peace Prize, "We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor ideals not by upholding them when its easy, but when its hard."
The president didn't officially acknowledge the existence of the drone program until 2012. Rand Paul received his assurance the president would not use drones to kill noncombatants in America in March of this year. The White House refused to send a witness to the recent Senate hearing on the issue despite the program becoming a hot-button topic, directly related to U.S. efforts to wind down (at least the perception of) war. Politico reported recently that, frustrated by the heightened public and political attention Obama has grown defensive. "This is not Dick Cheney we're talking about here," he reportedly said. But the drone program is, in fact, a continuation of an alteration in U.S. policy ushered by Bush-Cheney terror wars. Interestingly, Barack Obama's policy has not in anyway altered the adaptations that were already occurring during the last phase of Bush's tenure. He only sought to capitalize and own them when those adjustments were not coupled with attacks against Americans in Algeria or Libya, when they helped kill Osama bin Laden and before the Boston bombings occurred. It is perhaps emblematic that a program designed specifically to kill one man, bin Laden, has mutated into a massive network of covert operations that blanket much of the Muslim world. This confirms for many bin Laden's original galvanizing message that the the U.S. was at war with Islam itself. Where President Clinton was criticized for being cautious in pulling the trigger, the reliance on drones under Obama has pushed the U.S. to the opposite extreme.
Efforts to kill and capture enemies faster than the radical preachers and madrassas recruit them, as Donald Rumsfeld originally described it, have failed to defeat a resilient Al-Qaeda franchise. Drone attacks help popularize radical anti-American ideology and they so too create many more enemies than they kill. As the Obama administration watched anti-America protests over the Muhammad cartoons spread, they must have wondered if they were witnessing the end of U.S. influence in the Middle East. As they classified tactical terrorism in Benghazi as a "spontaneous protest" they had to wonder whether the narrative that the war on terror was winding down had come undone. Confronted with questions about what direction the region was moving, it is easy to imagine Obama picking up the phone and realizing that there were no remaining allies he could trust. It is also easy to imagine him then, almost instinctively, calling in the drones.
It is time for the American public, and especially the American-Muslim community, to denounce terrorism of all types. And to remind its president and other representatives that there is simply no unmanned solution to the human issues that shape our world, that, "Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain insight, not a guide by which to live." Here is to all those with the courage to work for true transparency, human rights and peace.
Younus Abdullah Muhammad is a Muslim American and Master of International Affairs. He is the founder of IslamPolicy.com and is presently incarcerated in the U.S. Federal Prison System. To provide feedback, offer criticism or assist the author or his family please email firstname.lastname@example.org