In early July, the United States released its official count of civilian casualties in counterterrorism operations under the Obama administration. The July 1 announcement arrived after years of sustained pressure from government watchdogs and human rights organizations, imploring the Obama administration to provide greater transparency. In the wake of this announcement, more questions than answers have appeared, as independent groups compare their estimates with the White House’s claims. According to the Pentagon, which oversees CIA and military operations, the United States inadvertently killed between 64 and 116 civilians in drone and other air attacks from 2009 to 2015 in countries where the U.S. is not at war –– namely, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia. However, organizations such as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimate that between 380 and 801 civilian noncombatants have been killed in counterterrorism operations (1). The apparent dissonance between these incongruous claims not only mandates greater transparency from the Obama administration, particularly with regard to the legality of its drone policy, but also casts doubt upon the efficacy of drone operations.
Although President Obama’s recent executive order promises greater transparency with regard to civilian casualties and increased measures to prevent civilian deaths, the administration has remained reticent on the legality of its drone policy. In a report released earlier this year, the Stimson Center –– a nonpartisan research organization –– gave the Obama administration an “F” for neglecting to provide the public with a clear legal justification for its drone policy against al-Qaida and ISIL targets in countries where the United States is not at war (2). The use of drones in targeted killings against suspected terrorists is riddled with troublesome legal questions. Finding an answer to these questions has become nearly impossible since the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) largely took over operations of the U.S. drone program, now shrouded in secrecy. Under the Bush administration, two parallel drone programs –– one operated by the military and one covertly operated by the CIA –– carried out drone attacks. However, since 2009, the Obama administration has consolidated the U.S. drone program into one covert operation under CIA control. As a result, the legal and normative framework under which the drone program operates, and whether drone operators are lawfully implementing the program, both remain unknown. Defining where the U.S. is at war, and the applicability of the law of war; determining the identity of targets and their status as combatants or noncombatants under international law; drawing consensus on the legality of targeted killings under international humanitarian law; ascertaining the location and status of drone operators: these are just a few of the most salient legal questions that the U.S. has failed to reconcile, amidst public outcry and pressure from the international community (3). As the U.S. fails to reconcile these issues, it readily undermines the rule of law, thus setting a dangerous precedent for the international community. As a global leader ostensibly committed to the rule of law and the protection of human rights, the United States cannot expect other countries to honor the obligations of international law if it continues to act without regard to its own legal commitments.
Over the years, the Obama administration has attempted to justify its drone campaign by highlighting its supposed success. With the number of noncombatants killed in drone strikes estimated to be at least 64, the White House touts over 2,000 strikes against terrorist targets between January 20, 2009, and December 31, 2015 (4). However, evidence suggests that drone strikes breed anti-Western sentiment, which, in turn, creates more jihadi militants. Indeed, terrorists use drone strikes as a recruitment tool. As innocent men, women, and children have become the victims of U.S. drone operations, entire communities in Yemen and Somalia, for example, have become important stores of anti-Americanism, which terrorists can exploit to their own ends (5). On December 12, 2013, a U.S. drone strike killed 12 Yemeni civilians, resulting in about $1 million in condolence payments from the U.S. government. Amnesty International, which analyzed 45 drone strikes in Pakistan between January 2012 and August 2013, reported that one U.S. drone strike in July 2012 killed 18 laborers and injured 22 others (6). Deplorable events such as these demand a new human security paradigm. If the U.S. wants to successfully combat the growth of violent extremism, it must seek to address the root causes of radicalization, rather than fomenting its creation. A new human security paradigm that addresses the root causes of radicalization would “[focus] on the person, rather than the state, through promotion of sustainable development, equality, political and economic security, and the alleviation of poverty in troubled regions” (7). The use of force must be applied as a last resort, limited in scope and duration, and determined by consensus in the international community. Unilateralist behavior that violates the territorial sovereignty of weaker states undermines the “global institution-building perspective” that prioritizes human security (7). For the U.S., the first step in adopting this reformed paradigm will be a movement toward even greater transparency. The public cannot properly scrutinize the U.S. drone policy until the government is willing to reveal the details of its operations. Until then, think tanks, non-governmental organizations, advocacy groups, and constituents must press the administration to pursue policies that honor its commitment to a more equal and secure world.
(1) Serle, Jack. "Obama Drone Casualty Numbers a Fraction of Those Recorded by the Bureau - The Bureau of Investigative Journalism." The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 01 July 2016. Web. 16 July 2016.
(2) De Luce, Dan. "Obama's Drone Policy Gets an 'F'." Foreign Policy. The FP Group, 23 Feb. 2016. Web. 16 July 2016.
(3) Sterio, Milena. "The United States' Use of Drones in the War on Terror: The (Il)legality of Targeted Killings Under International Law." Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law 45.1 (2012): 197-214.ProQuest. Web. 16 July 2016.
(4) Zenko, Micah. "Do Not Believe the U.S. Government's Official Numbers on Drone Strike Civilian Casualties." Foreign Policy Do Not Believe the US Governments Official Numbers on Drone Strike Civilian Casualties Comments. The FP Group, 5 July 2016. Web. 16 July 2016.
(5) Abbas, Hassan. "How Drones Create More Terrorists." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 23 Aug. 2013. Web. 16 July 2016.
(6) De Luce, Dan, and Paul McLeary. "Obama's Most Dangerous Drone Tactic Is Here to Stay." Foreign Policy. The FP Group, 5 Apr. 2016. Web. 16 July 2016.
(7) Shah, Sikander Ahmed. "War on terrorism: self defense, operation enduring freedom, and the legality of U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan." Washington University Global Studies Law Review 9.1 (2010): 77+. Academic OneFile. Web. 16 July 2016.
Image: © Banol2007 | Dreamstime.com - <a href="https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photography-sky-warrior-aircraft-patrol-image17264422#res14972580">Sky Warrior aircraft on patrol.</a>