TSG IntelBrief: U.S. Drone Strikes: A Tactical Success at a Strategic Cost
As of late June 2012, unmanned aerial vehicles (or drones) are playing an increasingly prominent role in President Barack Obama’s national security strategy. These drones have been employed in an array of capacities, and have become indispensable in providing sustained intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance in support of military operations. Clearly, however, the most controversial mission has been the Central Intelligence Agency’s covert drone campaign against al-Qaeda and its affiliates. These strikes have significantly disrupted the capability of Salafist-Jihadist groups to conduct attacks against the U.S. homeland. But these drone strikes — which have been primarily conducted in Pakistan, but increasingly in Yemen and Somalia — have exacerbated underlying geopolitical tensions.
The Tactical Success of Drone Strikes
For the current U.S. administration, the short-term national security merit of covert drone strikes must appear indisputable. They offer a unique and seemingly irreplaceable opportunity to disrupt terrorist plots, training camps, and infrastructure in locations where it would be extremely dangerous — and diplomatically problematic — to deploy troops either by air or on land. At a time of economic uncertainty, drones are also a comparatively cost-effective resource.
Recent drone strikes have damaged al-Qaeda’s central leadership and degraded its capability to conduct mass casualty attacks, especially those targeting the U.S. homeland. In the most recent example of their operational value, a June 4th drone strike reportedly killed Abu Yahya al-Libi, al-Qaeda’s apparent second in command. Following al-Libi’s death, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reported that only a “”small handful”” of senior al-Qaeda leaders remain alive on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. But with the increasing geographic dispersal of the threat from al-Qaeda’s network, some analysts recommend the range of the drone campaign be extended to combat threats in northern Africa and Nigeria.
Drones, Accountability and Law
Despite the short-term success in dismantling al-Qaeda’s core leadership, covert drone strikes remain deeply controversial. This is in part because, with minimal public or congressional oversight, very little is known about the processes that guide the program. Statements from senior U.S. officials to the media indicate that President Obama authorizes each strike, and that there are weekly meetings to determine who is to be included on that list. Apart from this, there is practically no information available on the methodology used for target selection, the degree of collateral damage deemed acceptable in the course of a given strike, or the degree of confidence that the target was correctly identified before the strike is launched. No matter how reliable the technology, there are still substantial risks of civilian casualties resulting from faulty or fragmented intelligence. According to some accounts, only one in seven drone strikes kills a militant leader, which suggests that non-combatant casualties could be higher than the government has admitted.
Meanwhile, a number of prominent international lawyers have questioned the legal justification for the CIA’s campaign. According to Foreign Policy magazine, a special rapporteur to the UN said that drones are a “vaguely defined license to kill.” The U.S. administration counters by arguing that targeted strikes fall within the legal right of self-defense following 9/11; they also claim to focus only on individuals who pose an “immediate” threat to the U.S. homeland. This remains a legal grey area as al-Qaeda’s attacks to date have been conducted with little, if any, warning (although it’s unclear if they retain the capacity to do so.)
Over the longer-term, the U.S. legal interpretation may have wider strategic implications as it could set a precedent for other states to use drones against the U.S. and its allies. As many as 50 nations — including Iran — now possess the technology to build and operate unmanned drones. While there is little available evidence to suggest that any state would currently use this technology to pose a direct threat to the U.S. homeland (or its interests across the globe), it remains a plausible scenario over the long-term.
Geopolitical and Strategic Tensions
The covert drone campaign has also inflamed geopolitical tensions, most notably with Pakistan, but also increasingly in Yemen. Credible reports appear to suggest that senior Pakistani politicians originally sanctioned U.S. drone strikes in designated areas of the country’s tribal areas. But more recently, the Pakistani government has publicly called for an end to the strikes, complaining that it has eroded its sovereignty. As the strikes have continued, this has contributed to a deterioration in the relationship between the two countries. Opinion polls suggest that the strikes are deeply unpopular among Pakistanis, while they support a radical Islamic narrative of U.S. interference in domestic affairs.
At least in part because of these drone strikes, the Pakistan People’s Party-led coalition has adopted a more robust anti-American position, which, in turn, could threaten wider U.S. strategic interests across South Asia. Pakistan’s government has already distanced itself from supporting a political settlement in Afghanistan ahead of NATO’s planned military withdrawal in 2014,and instead continues to abet Taliban and Haqqani group leaders. Meanwhile, the drone strikes in Yemen are seemingly an important contributing factor behind tribal support for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has led to its growth in the south and east of the country over the past year.
Other analysts believe that U.S. drones may be radicalizing a new generation of terrorists, and there is already evidence to support this view. Faizal Shazad, who attempted to detonate a bomb in Times Square in 2010, described drone strikes as his key motivation in planning the attack. In Yemen and Somalia, terrorists have threatened to attack U.S. interests because of drone strikes. Separately, drone strikes in Pakistan appear to have strengthened ties between local and international groups, which has enhanced operational reach across Pakistan and perhaps further. In one instance of this, following the drone strike that killed Baitullah Mehsud, the former Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader, the TTP and al-Qaeda collaborated to conduct a suicide attack against the CIA base in Camp Chapman in Afghanistan.
More Comprehensive Oversight
The geopolitical realities may require the winner of the upcoming U.S. presidential election to reconsider both the tactical and strategic implications of covert drone strikes when framing a new national security strategy. Given ongoing improvements in technology and the lack of more effective alternatives to combat the threat from al-Qaeda, drone strikes will nonetheless remain an important counter-terrorism tool.
One aspect of the drone program that is likely to change involves the process by which strikes are planned, approved, and conducted. Some analysts, for example, have called for control of the drone program to be transferred from the CIA to the military, which would allow greater public and government scrutiny. Long-term considerations suggest it would make sense to take this a step further and establish an oversight body that would, at a minimum, include senior intelligence, military, and diplomatic personnel. Such a move would arguably boost both domestic and international confidence that each strike was based on timely and reliable intelligence, and only occur under scenarios where U.S. lives were at imminent risk. This might also add the geopolitical value of reducing the incidence of non-combatant deaths.
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