On Obama’s (Possibly Unethical and Sort of Effective) Drone Program
With the aid of al-Qaeda “baseball cards,” Barack Obama personally approves of every drone strike in Yemen and Somalia, and has the final say on approximately a third of those in Pakistan. Who are the targets of these attacks? Suspected al-Qaeda militants, of course, and those deemed to be affiliated with al-Qaeda, among whom are “military-age males … unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” This cheery sneak peek behind the scenes of America’s ongoing war against al-Qaeda (or “War on Terror” or “Overseas Contingency Operations” or whatever you want to call it) is compliments of a 6,000-word piece by the New York Times and “three dozen of [Obama’s] current and former advisers,” who helped shed a little light on one of the most opaque components of Obama’s national security policy—especially for an administration that was supposed to usher in a new era of transparency.
There’s plenty of red meat for the administration’s critics on both the left and the right. And there is, I believe, plenty to recommend from both. I’ll start with the left. Yes, as Glenn Greenwald and others have argued, it’s troubling to say the least that, according to the Obama administration’s take, being a male of military age—whatever that means; I didn’t see a definition in the Times piece—in a strike zone is sufficient grounds for being characterized as a combatant, and thus fair game in a drone strike. Aside from seeming to be ethically problematic, this revelation helps explain the Obama administration’s curiously low figures for civilian deaths. Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, made headlines last year when he claimed,
There hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop.
As politicians are fond of saying, this just doesn’t meet the smell test. Micah Zenko over at the Atlantic has done the grunt work and gathered estimates from four research organizations on the number of civilians killed by drones in Pakistan alone:
- New America Foundation: 66;
- Long Wars Journal: 44;
- University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth: 24; and
- Bureau of Investigative Journalism: 200 (approximately).
That’s more like it. And as for the contention that if you’re in the same room as a suspected al-Qaeda militant, you’re probably up to no good—this is probably generally true, but not necessarily so. See, for instance, this Harper’s Magazine collection of statements by family members of drone victims who claim their loved ones were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Here’s one account:
I am approximately forty-six years old, though I do not know the exact date of my birth. I am a malice of my tribe, meaning that I am a man of responsibility among my people. One of my brother’s sons, Din Mohammed, whom I was very fond of, was killed by a drone missile on March 17, 2011. He was one of about forty people who died in this strike. Din Mohammed was twenty-five years old when he died. These men were gathered together for a jirga, a gathering of tribal elders to solve disputes. This particular jirga was to solve a disagreement over chromite, a mineral mined in Waziristan. My nephew was attending the jirga because he was involved in the transport and sale of this mineral. My brother, Din Mohammed’s father, arrived at the scene of the strike shortly following the attack. He saw death all around him, and then he found his own son. My brother had to bring his son back home in pieces. That was all that remained of Din Mohammed.
As for those on the right side of the political spectrum (and even Democrats, very recently), I think they’re right to complain about the steady stream of leaks emanating from the White House, which, all too conveniently, tend to be very flattering in their portrayal of the President and his national security policies. Right-wing pundit Charles Krauthammer, for instance, writes in the Washington Post that the Times article could just as easily have been mistaken for a White House press release. After all, the vast majority of the former administration officials who spoke on the record had nice things to say about the President, as did the battery of officials still in office, namely, Tom Donilon (National Security Adviser), Eric Holder (Attorney General), Harold Koh (Legal Adviser of the State Department), John Brennan (Homeland Security Adviser), and Jeh Johnson (General Counsel of the Defense Department).
But in the end, I believe the drone program has been a success—in Pakistan. Putting aside legal arguments (for which I’ll defer to the lawyers among us), look at the effects the US drone campaign has had on al-Qaeda Central (AQC), the organization responsible for 9/11. AQC has been decimated, evidenced most recently by the killing of AQC’s number two, Abu Yahya al-Libi, who counterterrorism analyst Jarret Brachman describes as al-Qaeda’s “Theological-Defender-in-Chief.” In the same post, Brachman questions al-Qaeda’s ability to endure without an “iron-fisted traffic cop” like Abu Yahya.
They speed. They run red lights. They get road rage. Al-Qaida, just like every other system, requires some enforcement mechanism, something to keep people honest and in line.
That was Abu Yahya al-Libi. And there is nobody else in al-Qaida that has a global presence who can wield the power like Abu Yahya. He could pick people up or smash them down. People respected his authoritaaaay.
So as far as AQC is concerned, they seem to be pretty well out of commission, at least in the short term. The big, glaring caveat to the “drones have been a success” line is AQC’s branch in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Indeed, the New York Times’ Eric Schmitt reported last week that Abu Yahya’s death has only accelerated a power shift from ACQ to AQAP, which has tripled in size in the last few years—growing from about 200-300 members at the end of 2009 to more than 1,000 today. What else has grown in the past few years, correlating very nice with the increasing number of AQAP recruits? Drone strikes. Despite their notable effectiveness in Pakistan and their obvious benefits (e.g., no US soldiers are put in harm’s way, they’re relatively cheap, and they’re relatively accurate) drones aren’t a panacea for America’s fight against al-Qaeda, at least not in the Arabian Peninsula. I’ll close with an excerpt from a recent article by the Post entitled, “In Yemen, U.S. Airstrikes Breed Anger, and Sympathy for al-Qaeda.”
According to his relatives, the man was a 19-year-old named Nasser Salim who was tending to his farm when Quso arrived in his vehicle. Quso knew Salim’s family and was greeting him when the missiles landed.
“He was torn to pieces,” said Salim’s uncle, Abu Baker Aidaroos, 30, a Yemeni soldier. “He was not part of al-Qaeda. But by America’s standards, just because he knew Fahd al-Quso, he deserved to die with him.”
Out of anger, Aidaroos said, he left his unit in Abyan province, the nexus of the fight against the militants. Today, instead of fighting al-Qaeda, he sympathizes with the group — not out of support for its ideology, he insists, but out of hatred for the United States.
This post was originally published at Aslan Media.