A war or military strategy is defined as an over-arching policy to achieve military goals, while a tactic is a specific method used in the execution of a strategy. Categorizing the use of drones as a tactic diminishes their impact and significance. The U.S. drone campaign is not a mere counterterrorism tactic, but rather a strategic choice by the United States to fight a distanced, low-cost war. Portraying drones as combat instruments is indulging in reductionism.
This military strategy of a detached, wieldy and inexpensive war fought by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) may have started as a tactic to counter terrorism in Afghanistan. But extending the use of drones to Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and potentially to places such as Mali, is a strategic choice that changes the nature of the war. In October, The Washington Post reported that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is looking to add another ten drones to its fleet of thirty-five, as the robotic aircraft becomes more and more central to the agency’s worldwide counterterror campaign. “The UAVs are growing in importance while the rest of the military campaign is receding,” according to Noah Shachtman of Brookings Institution.
This shift signifies a radical transformation in U.S. counterterrorism strategy towards drone warfare. The United States no longer has a strategy that merely utilizes drones as a tactical instrument, but one that is predicated on their use. Adding more drones as the U.S. nears the 2014 troop drawdown in Afghanistan is evidence that the United States is gearing up for its UAV-defined war of the future.
But what is wrong with having drones as a military strategy? Plenty. Making drones the face of warfare raises thorny ethical, legal and political issues. Obama’s “kill list,” the open-ended definition of a ‘militant’ (any man of military age who happens to be around or in a ‘suspected gathering’), the secrecy, and the lack of checks and accountability in the program are problematic. The countless civilian casualties and the ambiguity of drone strikes’ accuracy have prompted substantial reservations.
Drones are legal in Afghanistan as the law of war applies there. But in Pakistan, the application of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is murky due to the tacit consent of the Pakistani military. Moreover, U.S. drone strikes have not met the requirements of proportionality, discrimination and military necessity required by the application of IHL. In Yemen and Somalia, the law of war simply does not apply, and targeted killing in these two countries is illegal.
The unabated use of drones as central to America’s war policy is not a sound concept on the political front either, as drones have fueled anti-Americanism. Despite international derision, the United States is adding more drones to its fleet, further developing the technology, and funneling resources to the UAV campaign. This is interpreted as American intransigence and hubris, which is further complicating America’s relationships around the world.
More alarmingly, casualties from the drone program bolster Taliban and al-Qaeda propaganda and recruitment. The more civilians the U.S. kills via UAVs, the more people will be likely to support, even join, militant organizations, rendering the strategy ineffective. This UAV-centric policy will not be successful because the U.S. will not be able to kill its way out fast enough as al-Qaeda franchises mushroom in other ungoverned areas of the world, taking in a growing number of recruits.
Now imagine these abovementioned features not simply as concerns about America’s current drone program, but as facts of future war. The United States is setting a dangerous precedent for the world. Experts recognize that “what was once considered an immediate response to an exceptional threat to the United States is now a permanent and institutionalized feature of U.S. foreign policy.” Because the United States is not being held responsible for the casualties and lack of transparency of the drone program, countries such as China, the United Kingdom and Israel may follow suit. This could lead any powerful country to pre-emptively strike their foes without warning, hesitation or a mandate. And the blame for such practice will fall on America.
The only way out of this untenable scenario in the future is more transparency and accountability today. To start, the CIA should acknowledge the program’s existence. Subsequently, the United States should reduce the drone program as it draws down in Afghanistan and, once again, retain drones as tactical instruments of counterterrorism, with limited scope and clearly defined parameters for legal use.