News that a U.S. drone fired on two senior leaders of al-Shabab makes Somalia the sixth country where the United States is using unmanned aircraft to conduct lethal attacks, joining Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen.
The strike last week underscores the new Washington consensus: As American troops begin their withdrawal from Afghanistan, the battle against Al-Qaeda will be fought with flying killing machines, not boots on the ground, in countries across the world – even those with which the U.S. lacks a formal declaration of war.
This attitude is perhaps best captured by White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan’s recent statement, “If we hit Al-Qaida hard enough and often enough, there will come a time when they simply can no longer replenish their ranks.” With the vast improvement in weapons technology, capability, and drone-derived intelligence, the Obama administration has dramatically expanded the use of drone strikes to unprecedented levels, including over 160 attacks since 2010 in Pakistan alone.
But while this approach may be helping the U.S. hunt terrorist leaders while simultaneously reducing the public cost of traditional war, the soaring uptick in drone attacks – or “surgical strikes” as the Obama administration likes to euphamize – has come with virtually no public debate about the legal, tactical, and ethical basis for this brand of covert warfare. Although the media regularly reports on CIA strikes in Pakistan’s tribal regions, the Obama administration keeps details classified (the White House still does not publicly acknowledge the use of drones) and Congress fails to raise questions, save for the objections of left-wing, antiwar activist Dennis Kucinich (D – Ohio). It is regrettable that the centerpiece of America’s counterterrorism strategy has received such scant scrutiny – with no public awareness of who gets targeted and under what authority, where drones should be used, and how effective the program has been.
To some extent, drones can be seen as a modified form of air strikes from U.S. military jets or a more visible form of special operations tactics which the CIA has been using for decades. But law scholars are divided on whether the strikes are legal. State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh justified the targeted killings on the basis of the right to self-defense and the laws of war in a speech earlier this year, but failed to address the criteria for individuals who may be targeted and killed. He also neglected to address the existence of accountability mechanisms and procedural safeguards to ensure the legality and accuracy of drone killings.
Given that the “push-button approach” to fighting Al-Qaeda represents a radically new use of state-sanctioned lethal force in places where the U.S. does not have an authorized declaration of war, it is high time for a new congressional Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) – one that includes specific provisions about when and where the president can authorize targeted killing. Congress hasn’t voted on the boundaries of the war against Al-Qaeda in a decade. This kind of debate is long-overdue and would allow for an adequate level of public questioning about the extent to which the U.S. should be at war with al-Shebaab and Al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, Iraq, or elsewhere.
Drone strikes should be curbed until an AUMF 2.0 is passed, certainly in places where the U.S. does not have a formal declaration of war. Else they will continue to serve as the Black Card of the U.S. government – allowing the White House to stealthily target individuals in all corners of the globe without deploying U.S. troops or facing public scrutiny.
The Pentagon now has 7,000 drones, compared with 50 a decade ago, and recently asked Congress for $5 billion next year to build new robots, some as small as insects. If only the U.S. would send 7,000 new teachers to Afghanistan and give $5 billion to construct schools in places like Yemen – measures which would truly rollback Al-Qaeda’s influence.
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