A new drone policy could save lives

Over on the Cipher Brief my friend Rachel Stohl of the Stimson Center has a new essay (“Trump Drone Policy Taking Shape”) in which she expresses concerns about what she thinks the new administration’s policies may be with respect to drone operations.  I can’t say I know what the President’s policies may be, but I’ve long disagreed with those of Obama – which she commends – as I believe they were actually (albeit unintentionally) more lethal to civilians than a less-restrictive policy would have been.

Ms. Stohl says that the new administration’s approach may be to “rescind or relax certain standards for drone strikes.”  She says “more than three dozen national security leaders have cautioned the Trump Administration against expanding the standards for use of force in counterterrorism operations.” Interestingly enough, few of those have actual military experience, and most of them were Obama administration appointees.

Rachel argues:

[T]hat Trump’s short-term strategy of increasing strikes and lowering the threshold for U.S. engagement may put the U.S. at greater risk for blowback and could compromise Washington’s ability to develop partnerships and cooperation with affected countries.  Removing such policy constraints also risks undermining U.S. credibility in establishing a legal international precedent for drone use.

She further complains that “the Trump Administration seems willing to roll back the threshold on the level of acceptable civilian casualties and accept heightened civilian risks” adding “the current Administration seems committed to changing the rules guiding U.S. counterterrorism operations and the use of armed drones to presumably allow for greater flexibility in action.”

Her use of “flexibility of action” makes it sound as if it were an epithet, but the reality is that, militarily speaking, flexibility is a key to success.  The Obama administration’s byzantine process never seemed to understand that, so it is no surprise to me that the New York Times reported that “after eight years of chafing at what many generals viewed as micromanaging from the Obama White House, is so far embracing its new freedom.”  And the rank-and-file were not happy either, as a January 2017 Military Times poll found that only 36 percent approved of the job Obama did as their commander in chief.”

Rachel speculates that the Trump administration may adopt “status-based targeting” – which would permit attacks on nonstate actors on much the same basis as traditional soldiers can be subject to attack, that is, based on their status as members of an organized armed group engaged in continuous combat operations.  It is not entirely clear that the Obama administration ever completely abandoned that theory.  Taken together, their many pronouncements tended to blend status-based targeting with self-defense attacks based on an “imminent threat.”  Moreover, the Obama administration’s interpretation of imminence was so expansive, that at the end of the day, I am not sure there would be many cases where there would be much difference as to the individuals the respective approaches would find liable to attack.

What Rachel doesn’t discuss is the Obama administration’s advertising of a vastly-more-than-what-the-law-requires standard of a “near certainty” of zero civilian casualties.  As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m convinced that Obama’s trumpeting of this  restrictive standard is much responsible for massive upsurge in the use of human shields by ISIS and others.  What is more is that I and others have long seen Obama’s policies as more avoiding criticism than they were about stopping those who were killing most of the civilians. (See here, here, and here.)

In my view, the lethargic, time-consuming system employed by the Obama administration allowed too many terrorists to live too long to inflict too much death and injury to the truly helpless.  There really is no evidence for the proposition that more permissive drone attacks that complied with the law of war, would cause “blowback and could compromise Washington’s ability to develop partnerships and cooperation with affected countries.”

The oft-repeated, seldom-proved “blowback” argument is, well, overblown.  Respectable countries know that in this kind war, mistakes can regrettably happen.  In fact, even after the tragic loss of life as a result of the airstrike in Mosul of the sixty-eight countries that are part of the coalition battling ISIS, I am of aware of none that have withdrawn from the campaign as a result.  Other than Russia, international criticism has been muted.

More specifically, where is the evidence that this allegedly intensifying drone campaign is killing great numbers of civilians?  As of this writing. the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) – hardly a ‘drone-friendly’ organization – reports zero to three civilian casualties from eight to ten drone strikes in Yemen this year.  For Somalia, zero drone strikes in 2017, and for Pakistan, two drone strikes with zero to three civilian deaths.  For Afghanistan, BIJ doesn’t distinguish between drone strikes and other air attacks, but with that mind, consider that there have been 239 airstrikes with 18 reported civilian deaths as against as many as 341 militants killed.

Of course, no one wants any innocent civilians to get injured or to die and all reasonable efforts should be made to avoid that; but as a nation we also have to be mindful that a failure to act often equips the enemy with the time and tools to intentionally capture, kill, behead or maim children, women and men.

Sure, we need to watch carefully as the new administration implements its approach and Rachel’s essay is a good reminder of that, but if an examination of drone policies is going to be done, why not also take a detailed look at the Obama administration’s drone policies?  History often gives us insight for the future.

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