Keep Them Looking Up


Somalia now joins Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya and Yemen on the list of countries where U.S. Predator drones now patrol the skies. And while President Barack Obama will likely get another earful from liberals and conservatives alike on their controversial use and debatable legality, expanding drones to target militants who pose a threat to U.S. national security is another smart counter-terrorism move by the administration.

Drones are rapidly becoming the new face of American warfare. As we expand their coverage, the U.S. is investing billions of dollars to develop smaller, more sophisticated “bugs.” And why not? A decade of war has cost the country thousands of American lives and trillions of dollars, why not send robots instead of soldiers to confront our enemies?

Such unbridled weapons of war will lead the United States down a perilous road, but drones are a technology to be embraced if we set limits on their use immediately. As I argued in my most recent article, in situations where no declared state of war exists, drone strikes should be used only as a counter-terrorism tool.

It is important to remember that beyond their strategic strike capability, drones conduct valuable surveillance for extended periods of time in areas where human intelligence is often limited. When authorized to attack, drones can better locate a specific target than a conventional piloted air strike. And in the unlikely event a drone is shot down by an intended target, the U.S. is spared the death or capture of a pilot and a couple hundred million dollars from a destroyed fighter jet.

Most importantly, in five out of the six countries where the U.S. has launched drone strikes, there exists a substantial, if not direct, threat to U.S. national security from a range of militant groups. And in each of those cases, drones have been used not to challenge the sovereignty of those states, but to supplement the power of weak and ineffective (and in Somalia’s case non-existent) central governments.

The case for drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq is self-evident. In all three theaters, we are faced with central governments that simply lack the capability (and in the case of Pakistan, lack the interest) to address substantial security threats not just to their own populations, but to ours as well. In all three cases, drones continue to strike militant strongholds, identify bomb production, and conduct neighborhood surveillance.

The use of drones in Pakistan is perhaps the most controversial of all six plans. While drones have killed scores of militants affiliated with the Haqqani Network, the Pakistani Taliban, and other Al-Qaeda-linked groups, they have also contributed to civilian deaths. Short of halting the drone program in Pakistan, which will not happen so long as the Pakistani military and intelligence services continue to support militants in the lawless tribal areas, there is one way the U.S. could ease Pakistani antipathy towards drones.

The C.I.A. should transfer control of the drones to the U.S. military immediately. As Peter Bergen explains in a recent Foreign Affairs piece, “U.S. military lawyers ensure that the strikes conform to the laws of war, whereas in Pakistan, whatever vetting process the C.I.A. observes remains opaque.” He adds that, “in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. military also tends to pay compensation for accidental civilian deaths, whereas Pakistani civilians in the tribal areas can seek little legal or material recourse from the United States when their relatives are slain.” This would be one welcome step towards transparency where drone usage is particularly hazy.

More recently, the U.S. has dispatched drones to buzz the skies over Yemen and Somalia, each home to groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda and with stated goals of attacking the United States. Both Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen and al-Shabab in Somalia peddle far-flung messages that fall on receptive ears among some in their respective immigrant communities in the U.S. Drones keep an eye on and disrupt the activities of these two dangerous groups.

Admittedly, Libya is the odd-man out. Drone strikes against loyalist forces for Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi are hard to justify. The Gadaffi regime never posed an immediate threat to U.S. national security, and after 100 days of NATO bombardment, it still does not. Even though our use of drones is apparently limited, the fact remains we are not using them as a counter-terrorism measure, allowing for all the controversy surrounding the legal use of drones to come legitimately to the forefront.

If a drone eventually eliminates Gadaffi, why should the U.S. not target another undesirable world leader? It is one of the alluring, but frightening, options that come with drones.

That does not mean the U.S. has to succumb to them. Drones have made fighting wars, and possibly starting them, easier, which means we have to establish higher thresholds for our intervention. If we keep their use to specific and responsible counter-terrorism operations, we may find drones are the best weapons in our arsenal. 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons