Will the US Drone War End?

January 9, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

With the formal conclusion of US-led hostilities in Afghanistan, new attention has been focused on the role the US will play as trainers and advisers to the Afghan National Security Forces.  Specifically, what the US counterterror (CT) mission against terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban will look like.  President Obama has already increased the residual force for 2015 adding 1,000 extra troops to the previously stated 9,800.  Interestingly, commentators have been examining how the US will continue its CT campaign, which relies heavily on controversial drone strikes against known terrorist actors and their positions.

Many have described the situation in Afghanistan as the formal conclusion of the war, but the beginning of a new “covert” chapter.  Journalist John Knefel wrote recently in Rolling Stone:

“[The] perplexing distinction – that formal combat operations are over but that the U.S. still remains in an armed conflict – in many ways exemplifies the lasting legacy of Obama’s foreign policy. From Yemen to Pakistan to Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan, the administration has consistently downplayed its actions – some acknowledged and some covert – saying that the wars are (almost) over while retaining virtually all the powers of a country at war.”

Former Obama administration legal adviser Marty Lederman also commented recently:

“What does the President mean when he states that the ‘war’ in Afghanistan is concluding?  After all, although the U.S. combat mission might have ended, the fighting has not stopped:  Indeed, as some of the same news reports explain, ‘insurgents’ (presumably Taliban forces, among others) have recently inflicted more casualties upon the Afghan people–even if not on U.S. forces or persons–than they have in the past.  And although U.S. (and other NATO) forces may no longer take the lead in the fight, they will continue to provide what the new mission’s name suggests, that is to say, ‘resolute support’ to the Afghan forces–support that presumably will include the use of lethal force in at least some circumstances.”

Furthermore, the New York Times wrote back in November regarding when President Obama nonchalantly increased troop levels for the post-conflict Afghanistan; “One senior American military officer said that in light of Mr. Obama’s decision, the Air Force expects to use F-16 fighters, B-1B bombers and Predator and Reaper drones to go after the Taliban in 2015. ‘Our plans are to maintain an offensive capability in Afghanistan,’ he said.”

Much has been written in the past regarding this administration’s over-reliance on drones for CT purposes.  Several experts have maintained that drones are ineffective in the long term as they do not adequately degrade terrorist organizations the way the administration wishes.  In addition, reports indicate that drone strikes rally more people against the US due to the casualties they inflict.  The administration has typically maintained that while there have been “sparse” incidents of civilian casualties in the past, they take the utmost caution to prevent them in future operations.

However, as Knefel reported recently quoting a senior administration official that, “‘Afghanistan will continue to be considered an “area of active hostilities” in 2015’…’The PPG does not apply to areas of active hostilities.’ (PPG stands for Presidential Policy Guidelines, the formal name for the heightened drone rules.)” (The PPG fact sheet can be found here.)  Similarly, the administration has maintained that these heightened measures also do not apply in Syria regarding the new aerial assault against the Islamic State group.  According to a White House spokesperson, “The ‘near certainty’ standard [of preventing civilian casualties prior to launching strikes] was intended to apply ‘only when we take direct action “outside areas of active hostilities,” as we noted at the time’…’That description — outside areas of active hostilities — simply does not fit what we are seeing on the ground in Iraq and Syria right now.'”

This “grey zone” as described by one former Obama administration official, raises serious questions about the way the US conducts operations abroad.  “If we’re not applying the strict rules [to prevent civilian casualties] to Syria and Iraq, then they are of relatively limited value,” stated Harold Koh, former legal adviser to the administration.

The “grey zone” has been coined by one law professor as “folk international law” – “Once you start picking and choosing from distinct bodies of law to create a confusing mélange of vague norms and principles outside of their intended judicial framework, it becomes very difficult to control the longer-term consequences for the stability and effectiveness of international law to regulate armed conflict.”

The administration has, for the most part, denied any indications that they have killed civilians in Iraq or Syria (or elsewhere) as part of their new aerial coalition against militants.  However, reports this week state that there is an investigation of two air strikes for potential civilian casualties.  “The U.S. military disclosed Tuesday that it is investigating alleged civilian casualties from two airstrikes in Syria and Iraq last year, and that it has dismissed 13 other allegations of civilian casualties from airstrikes,” the report stated.  These investigations are regarded as a shift in US policy.

Clearly, the Obama administration likes using drones as a primary offensive CT tool and it does not demonstrate any indications of discontinuing this practice despite widespread criticism.  While drones can be an effective tactical tool, they have not succeeded in full decimation of terrorist groups – even with the combination of US ground forces as demonstrated during the Iraq war.  The US was able to significantly degrade the Islamic State group’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, even killing their original military and spiritual leader with a drone strike – but the US has yet to completely destroy any targeted terrorist groups.

Potentially, a new chief executive could reverse this strong reliance on drones or resort to other tactics.  President Bush did not rely as heavily on drones as President Obama has.  There is also the possibility that, as New York Times journalist James Risen posits in his new book “Pay Any Price,” that the US does not want to discontinue these practices as they yield large contracts and a lot of money for defense firms.  Just a thought.