Journalism in the Public Interest

Have U.S. Drones Become a ‘Counterinsurgency Air Force’ for Our Allies?

Drone strikes appear to be increasingly targeting those who aren’t plotting against the U.S.

An MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft sits in a shelter in Iraq before a mission. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Erik Gudmundson)

On Sunday the New York Times reported that the Obama administration, prompted by the possibility of losing the election, has been developing a “formal rule book” to govern the use of drone strikes, which have killed roughly 2,500 people under President Obama.

One aspect of the piece in particular caught our eye: While administration officials frequently talk about how drone strikes target suspected terrorists plotting against the U.S., the Times says the U.S. has shifted away from that. Instead, it has often targeted enemies of allied governments in countries such as Yemen and Pakistan. From the Times:

[F]or at least two years in Pakistan, partly because of the C.I.A.’s success in decimating Al Qaeda’s top ranks, most strikes have been directed at militants whose main battle is with the Pakistani authorities or who fight with the Taliban against American troops in Afghanistan.

In Yemen, some strikes apparently launched by the United States killed militants who were preparing to attack Yemeni military forces. Some of those killed were wearing suicide vests, according to Yemeni news reports.

To learn more about this underappreciated aspect of U.S. drone policy, I spoke to Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has been critical of U.S. drone policy and was quoted in the Times piece. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You were quoted over the weekend arguing that the U.S., with the campaign of drone strikes, is acting as the “counterinsurgency air force of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.” How did you come to this conclusion?

Under the Obama administration, officials have argued that the drone strikes are only hitting operational Al Qaeda leaders or people who posed significant and imminent threats to the U.S. homeland. If you actually look at the vast majority of people who have been targeted by the United States, that’s not who they are.

There are a couple pieces of data showing this. Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation has done estimates on who among those killed could be considered “militant leaders” — either of the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban, or Al Qaeda. Under the Bush administration, about 30 percent of those killed could be considered militant leaders. Under Obama, that figure is only 13 percent.

Most of the people who are killed don’t have as their objective to strike the U.S. homeland. Most of the people who are killed by drones want to impose some degree of sharia law where they live, they want to fight a defensive jihad against security service and the central government, or they want to unseat what they perceive as an apostate regime that rules their country.

Why does this distinction matter so much?

This is a huge outstanding dilemma. Is the primary purpose of the drone attacks counter-terrorism, or is it counter-insurgency? If it’s counter-insurgency, that is a very different mission, and you have to rethink the justifications and rethink what the ultimate goal is of using lethal force.

There was a February article in the New York Times reporting that the goal of U.S. policy in Yemen was to kill about two dozen Al Qaeda leaders. There’s been about 50 drone strikes in Yemen since that article. Meanwhile, according to U.S. government statements, the size of AQAP has grown from “several hundred” to “a few thousand members.” So the question is, who is actually being targeted, and how does this further U.S. counterterrorism objectives?

Is this use of drone strikes to kill people who are not imminent threats to the U.S. new?

No. The marked shift was in summer 2008 when the Bush administration decided to significantly lower the threshold of who could be attacked.

The purpose of this change was to reduce threats to U.S. servicemembers in southern Afghanistan and to intervene where some suicide attacks were organized in the tribal areas of Pakistan. This was the time when the “signature strikes” really became ingrained. Bush administration officials called this the “‘reasonable man’ standard,” and if you were displaying what are called “patterns of behavior,” you could be killed.

People mistakenly think that this policy started under Obama, but it didn’t. It did accelerate markedly under Obama. He has had more drones to do this, was much more vigorous about authorizing their use, and expanded the signature strikes into Yemen.

How does this use of drone attacks square with official administration statements describing the policy?

They will never say that the United States uses drones to fight local insurgencies. If they made that case, they would have to create a new bastion of justifications. The current stated justifications are very carefully thought out and very deliberate to loosely adhere to the post-9/11 Authorization to Use Military Force and principles of Article 51 of the UN Charter, governing the use of force.

There has been a long-term fight with people within the administration who want to reform the policy and think the U.S. needs to be more transparent — both for domestic reasons and because of the precedents being set for the use of drone strikes. If other countries follow our practice in how they will use drone strikes, that would be a very unstable, dangerous world to live in.


Note: We asked White House spokesman Tommy Vietor to respond the notion that drones strikes often involve those who are not a threat to the U.S. He declined to comment. 

Problem is, when you’re allowed (by the media and the citizenry) to define “militant” as anybody capable of carrying a gun (not actually carrying one, just capable of doing so), then it’s easy to call insurgency or even outspokenness terrorism.

And when the program itself is only rumored, with no government officials really talking about the program without a wink and a nod, well…black ops isn’t really a field known for its moral positions.

Reminds me of a documentary that I saw on Vietnam. The B52 strikes had the North and VC on their knees. Public outcry forced us to stop. History is repeating itself.

The long term problem is!
Retaliation. And I beleive it is coming just a matter of time. UAV can be match box sized, must not be used for spying but as a terror weapon.
I see the US running Jammers on a lot of Spectrum in the future. We opened the door and are not the only ones who can do this.

The UAV Iran stole, yes stole> I want go into details about how but it is simple to do. Does any of you think they will not copy the technology and sell it also?

Working an a Nuke and we have given them a means of delivery once they reverse engineer the Tech used.
Propeler drvien launched from a Sea vessel on a skid using rocket assit pods.

Yea I see us Jamming a lot of spectrum in the future for our own protection…

Why do we continue to stick our head in he sand?

Think first about the massive profits and personal gains by outlandish business planners behind Drone related Progs. and then about creation of all the unnecessary bi-products and the dumb incentives to dumber enemies to copy the same technology at cheapest costs which eventually cause slender of US humanitarian image as consequences. 
Wise foreign policies are needed for rapidly changing to be new-generation’s world of non-violent politics.

I think most Americans have wised up by now who the real terrorists are…  a terrorist is someone who, quite simply, causes terror in another person.  The copy zooming up behind us on the highway, the FBI profiling us, the court summons in the mail that strikes fear into us, the no-knock warrants at 3 am of armed swat paramilitary police busting into our homes and scaring the daylights out of our wives and children…  this is terror… and the people doing so…  terrorists.

Americans know they have nothing to fear from a bunch of strangers of some desert tribe 10,000 miles away, with an ocean seperating us… none of whom any of us have a bone to pick.  No, the people who are our real enemy live on the same continent as us, masquerading as our government… a bunch of thugs with radios and guns, extorting taxes from us and arresting and locking our sons and daughters and neighbors in prison.  These are the terrorists… under their flag of stars and bars… where the stars represent us, and the bars represent the police state prison surrounding us, boxing us ever tighter into a corner from which we can’t escape.

No insurgent has ever caused terror… these are the Davids, fighting the Goliaths… terror wielding monsters who strike with a push button war of Skynet death dealing machines against poor impoverished country simple country folk, picking up their rifles to defend what’s left of their homes and their families on some worthless scrap of desert soil they’ve tried to eek out a living from for generations.

Americans know who the real terrorists are… the real terrorists are the liars pointing their fingers at the other guy, saying,  over there, there are your enemies, there are the terrorists…  the black pots trying to call the porcelin kettles black.

“according to U.S. government statements, the size of AQAP has grown from “several hundred” to “a few thousand members.””

And somehow, we are supposed to believe this is a negligible problem?

The author and interviewee appear too beholden to the “patriotic” viewpoint to even hint that there could be a cause-effect relation between multiplication of drone strikes and a >10 fold increase in the ranks of AQAP.

Perish the thought!

This is shoddy journalism, not up to the usual high standards of ProPublica.


I believe the implication is not that AQAP has actually grown ten fold, but that the US has conveniently enlarged the number so more targets fit under the anti-terror justification.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
The Drone War

The Drone War

ProPublica is covering the U.S.' expanding – and often secret – targeted killing program.

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