Targeting terrorists and militants with Predator drone strikes is one campaign promise President Obama has kept to the letter. Missiles fired from remote-piloted “unmanned aerial vehicles” (UAVs) at al Qaeda and Taliban leadership steadily and sharply increased over the course of 2009. Senior U.S. military and intelligence officials have called them one of the most effective tactics available to strike directly at al Qaeda and the Taliban. Indeed, CIA director Leon Panetta says that drones are “the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al Qaeda leadership.” There is every reason to believe him.
In January 2010 alone, a dozen strikes were launched just in the Pakistani tribal region of Waziristan. With the beginning of the promised offensive against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Predator attacks have likewise surged against targets in Pakistan, concurrent with moves by Pakistani intelligence to detain Taliban leaders, and also concurrent with the extensive use of UAVs on the battlefield in the Afghan offensive (primarily as an urban surveillance tool but also for missile strikes). Obama promised that his administration would go after al Qaeda and Taliban in their refuges in Pakistan—with or without the permission of the Pakistani government, he pointedly said—and so he has done.
The aggressive expansion of the Predator targeted killing program is the Obama administration’s one unambiguous innovation in the war against terrorists. The adaptation of UAV surveillance craft into missile platforms took place as an improvisation in 2002 under the Bush administration—but its embrace as the centerpiece of U.S. counterterrorism operations belongs to Obama. It is not the whole of it—the Obama administration has expanded joint operations with Pakistan and Yemen, and launched commando operations in Somalia against terrorists. But of all the ways it has undertaken to strike directly against terrorists, this administration owns the Predator drone strategy. It argued for it, expanded it, and used it, in the words of the president’s State of the Union address, to “take the fight to al Qaeda.”
As al Qaeda, its affiliates, and other transnational jihadists seek shelter in lightly governed places such as Yemen or Somalia, the Obama administration says the United States will follow them and deny them safe haven. Speaking at West Point, the president obliquely referred to so-called targeted killings—we will have to be “nimble and precise” in the use of military power, he said, adding that “high-ranking al Qaeda and Taliban leaders have been killed, and we have stepped up the pressure on al Qaeda worldwide.”
The Predator drone strategy is a rare example of something that has gone really, really well for the Obama administration. Counterterrorism “on offense” has done better, ironically, under an administration that hoped it could just play counterterrorism on defense—wind down wars, wish away the threat as a bad dream from the Bush years, hope the whole business would fade away so it could focus on health care. Yet for all that, the Obama administration, through Predator strikes, is taking the fight to the enemy.
And, let’s face it, in dealing with terrorist groups in ungoverned places in the world, we have few good options besides UAVs. Drones permit the United States to go directly after terrorists, rather than having to fight through whole countries to reach them. Maybe that’s not enough to win. Maybe “light-footprint” counterterrorism via drones turns out to be just the latest chimera in the perennial effort to find a way to win a war through strategic airpower. Yet even in a serious counterinsurgency on the ground, drones will still be important as a means of attacking terrorists while clearing and holding territory. The upshot? As long as we engage in counterterrorism, drones will be a critical part of our offense.
Obama deserves support and praise for this program from across the political spectrum. More than that, though, the drone strikes need an aggressive defense against increasingly vocal critics who are moving to create around drone warfare a narrative of American wickedness and cowardice and of CIA perfidy.
Here the administration has dropped the ball. It has so far failed to provide a robust affirmation of the propositions that underwrite Predator drone warfare. Namely:
n Targeted killings of terrorists, including by Predators and even when the targets are American citizens, are a lawful practice;
n Use of force is justified against terrorists anywhere they set up safe havens, including in states that cannot or will not prevent them;
n These operations may be covert—and they are as justifiable when the CIA is tasked to carry them out secretly as when the military does so in open armed conflict.