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The Drone Problem: Micah Zenko in conversation with The Straddler

On October 8, 2013, The Straddler met with Micah Zenko in Manhattan at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he is Douglas Dillon Fellow in the Center for Preventive Action. He also serves as vice chair of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Terrorism.

Zenko is the author of several Council Special Reports, including Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies, which formed the basis of our conversation with him. He is also author of the book Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World, which was published in 2010 by Stanford Univerity Press.

Zenko regularly posts on U.S. national security, international security, and conflict prevention at his blog Politics, Power, and Preventive Action.

Zenko, October 8, 2013

Killing people in non-battlefield settings was something unprecedented for the United States before 2002. Even as late as December of 2001, the Bush administration denounced Israeli targeted killings as unhelpful and possibly in violation of international law. This was not something that we did. If immediately after 9/11 you had said that the U.S. would conduct almost 450 targeted killings, nobody would have believed you.

The reason we have armed drones is because of one individual. The armed drone was a CIA and Joint Staff plan to put anti-tank helicopter missiles on an existing surveillance platform so that Osama bin Laden could be targeted more quickly than he could be with cruise missiles. Cruise missiles were time consuming because you had to spin up the missiles, you had to warn the Pakistanis that these were not Indian nuclear missiles coming over their territory, and you had to track bin Laden to the extent that you could in real time. With drones, you could collapse that four- to six-hour process down to a few seconds.

And you didn’t put your personnel at risk. I’ve looked at every use of force decision going back to the Reagan administration, and there have always been concerns about U.S. service members. Drones reduce that risk. There have always been concerns about civilian casualties. Drones reduce that risk. Drones significantly change the calculus in the minds of policy makers; they increase confidence among civilian leadership that using force is okay—that it’s a scalpel, that it’s precise, and that it has near infallibility.

This is an important point. Drones are an inherently different technology, but they don’t require or necessitate new international law, and they don’t necessitate new norms or principles for the use of force—they do, however, lower the threshold for authorizations of force by policy makers. The persistence and responsiveness of drones, and the fact that you are not putting your personnel at risk, has changed the thinking of civilian policy makers in the course of ten years in a way that is without precedent in the history of warfare. The U.S. never would have conducted 375 manned strikes or Special Operations raids in Pakistan. But it has conducted 375 drone strikes.

Signature strikes are the ugly secret of what I call the “Third War,” which is the post-9/11 strikes in non-battlefield settings. The premise behind signature strikes is that the U.S. can lawfully target individuals who, through network analysis and patterns of observable behavior, are believed to belong to militant groups posing a direct threat to a range of interests. These are not people who are on “kill lists,” or people who have been identified as high-value targets. These are anonymous individuals. We don’t know who they are. I’ve seen the CIA estimates, and it’s very clear they don’t know who they’re killing. Some of the qualifiers they use are “Taliban,” a few are “Al Qaeda,” but a lot of them are just “Other.” That’s the term they use: “Other.”  And they say, “between three and seven people were killed.” So they don’t know exactly who was killed, or exactly how many people were killed.

The primary myth that has now finally eroded is that every individual who was being targeted in drone strikes was an imminent danger to the U.S. homeland. That’s what the U.S claimed for years and years and years. But in fact, most of the individuals who were targeted in Pakistan were believed to be threats to U.S. service members in Afghanistan. The U.S. would never say that, but now, finally, it does. In May of this year, President Obama finally said, “Imminent threats to the U.S. homeland or to U.S. persons.” That’s a significantly different standard. And if you chart out the growth in drone strikes in Pakistan, they match the introduction of U.S. service members in Afghanistan.

Part of the deal with Pakistan involves what are called “side-payment strikes.” Jonathan Landay of McClatchey has reported a lot about this. In order to kill the people we want to kill, we have to kill some people viewed as threats by the Pakistanis. In fact, early on the people targeted by the U.S. were primarily threats to the state of Pakistan. In a 2007 report, Landay described a conflict between the Pakistani Army and the Taliban. The Pakistani Army was getting killed in big numbers, so they called in the CIA to intervene on their behalf—essentially to conduct a close-air support mission. And in fact, the CIA has served at times as the de facto counterinsurgency air force for both the government of Pakistan and the government of Yemen.

Pew polls show that these strikes are abhorred in Pakistan. Less than two percent of the Pakistani population supports them, even though strikes occur in the FATA region, where less than one percent of the Pakistani population lives. Most Pakistanis will never hear a drone, see a drone, or experience a drone, but they have such salience within Pakistani politics, in part because of the misinformation allowed to be presented about how they’re employed—the Pakistani government publicly condemns the strikes while privately consenting to them; jointly reviews strikes against certain individuals; and provides serially misleading information about civilian casualties—and in part because of civilian casualty incidents, and in part because people don’t like their sovereignty being breached, and tribal networks being disrupted, especially by the United States.

Nobody can determine what makes an individual join a militant or terrorist group, so I am cautious about saying that drone strikes are a contributing factor. The fact is, in most places where strikes occur, there are two things people hate: they hate foreign Islamic militants living among them, and they hate drone strikes. They’re both foreign presences that cause disruption in the social fabric. And it’s not just where the strikes occur that these strikes are hated. If you look at polls, ninety percent of Turks hate these strikes, as do ninety-three percent of Greeks, and eighty-five percent of Japanese. In Western Europe, every country disagrees with America’s interpretation of who can lawfully be targeted.

And it’s important to understand that the U.S. is very explicit in not identifying which body of international law applies to its drone program.  The U.N. Special Rapporteurs have been asking the U.S. to better describe which international law applies, and they refuse to do it. I’m not an international lawyer, but when you talk to these people there are huge disagreements. A lot of international lawyers say that what the U.S. is doing is dangerous and unprecedented. Among U.S. government lawyers, there is not much disagreement—they can find lawful justification for strikes. But nobody else on the earth agrees with us.

When we think about how drones will be used in the future, we should not be constrained by how America has used them to date. A lot of people will look at America’s use of drones and think that’s the extent of the possibilities. But when other folks have this technology, they will use them for a range of missions that we haven’t thought of yet. Drones are actually a really good way to deliver weapons of mass destruction, for example. They’re better than humans and they’re better than rockets or missiles. So for state actors, if you’re thinking about different ways to kill a lot people, drones are a good way to do it. Drones also allow you to push and prod things in a way that manned aircraft might not. And that can lead to crisis escalation and instability and a militarized response, which is met by another militarized response. These are big issues. But we also know from history that states don’t just acquire some new lethality and use it willy-nilly on day one. They actually look very closely at how others have used and employed weapons, and that has a constraining effect. That’s why I’ve been saying that the U.S. needs to think about the normative precedents it’s setting, and that these precedents should be based in what we all already agree upon—namely, the foundations of international law.

Many of the reforms that I’ve been calling for have been announced, but whether they mean anything, and whether they will actually be implemented, is unclear. Between November 2002 and January 2012, no U.S. official ever acknowledged that the strikes occurred. Never. And then in January 2012, President Obama acknowledged a drone strike in a Google Hangout. It was remarkable, and it was partly a result of public pressure that came about because of news reporting, leaked Department Of Justice and CIA documents, and the John Brennan confirmation hearings. A lot of this explains why the President made the speech at the National Defense University and issued new public policy guidance in May of this year. That would have been unthinkable just eighteen months earlier.

But what this means is not clear. You know, the new standard is that there has to be a “near certainty” that no civilians will be harmed, and the U.S. has a preference for capture over kill, and the U.S. has a preference for shifting drone strikes from the CIA to the military. But we don’t know if any of that’s being done. And I don’t know what the standard was before “near certainty.” Was their a “somewhat certainty” that civilians wouldn’t be killed before, and now there is a “near certainty?” No one quite knows what that term really means. There are many unresolved questions. For example, which body of international law applies? Again, this was a technology that was developed to kill one person, and now, by my count, it has been used 450 times—400 times by Obama and 50 times by Bush—to kill something like 3,700 people, most of whom weren’t on “kill lists,” in non-battlefield settings.

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