When Barack Obama took office in January 2009, he announced a review of the contended practices utilized in the war on terror that were introduced by his predecessor. He forbade the CIA from using harsh interrogation methods beyond those permitted by the US military, shut down the Agency's network of secret prisons around the world and announced the eventual closure of Guantanamo Bay. However, when it comes to CIA drone strikes in Pakistan, the new US administration continues with the practice established under the previous presidency and has even authorized a sharp increase in the number of such strikes.
The overall use of drones by the US military, and the CIA in particular, has significantly increased over the last decade, as they have proven an excellent tool for operations such as targeted assassinations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The US military budget has allocated $3.5 billion for drones in 2010 alone, and this figure is predicted to rise to $55 billion by 2020.
Today, the US Air Force already trains more drone operators than fighter and bomber pilots, and has plans to commission hundreds of new drones over the next few years. Given that the capabilities provided by drones - such as 24/7 surveillance or timely strikes against time-sensitive targets - are widely considered in the US military as ‘game changing,’ their use is bound to increase as part of the campaign against terrorism and future conflicts.
After taking office in summer 2009, the new commander of US forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley A McChrystal, responded quickly to mounting criticism of spiralling civilian casualties among the Afghani population over the last two years. He declared population protection his most important objective and set tough new guidelines for the use of air strikes in Afghanistan - with the notable exception of drone strikes.
The US Air Force in Afghanistan and particularly the CIA operating in the remote tribal areas in Pakistan were granted even more leeway in their respective drone campaigns. Consequently, the number of CIA drone strikes in Pakistan rose from 34 in 2008 to 53 in 2009, and is expected to significantly exceed this number in 2010. As of the end of April, 33 strikes have already been executed.
Despite official protests from Pakistan against the drone strikes, the Pakistani government has secretly given its okay and now partially supports them as they are regarded as less objectionable violations of Pakistan’s sovereignty than ground incursions by US Special Forces.
Given that the US military has no UN mandate outside of Afghanistan, CIA drone strikes are largely considered by the Obama administration as the most effective tool to hand against militants in Waziristan. CIA Director Leon Panetta has even referred to the drone program as "the only game in town." Hence, Obama seems determined to continue to make intensive use of this means in future.
Against this background, it is remarkable that there still is not and never has been a large public debate about the legal and moral issues surrounding the CIA drone program of targeted assassinations within the borders of Pakistan. This is all the more surprising when bearing in mind that former US president George W Bush previously came under fire for considering to dispatch somewhat more traditional hit-squads abroad to capture or take out suspected terrorists. The drone strikes in Waziristan on the other hand do not per se provide for the option to capture any suspects alive.
Prior to 9/11, US governments had also continuously condemned the Israeli campaign of targeted assassinations in the Palestinian Territories as "extrajudicial killings, we do not support", as Martin Indyk, then-US ambassador to Israel, put it in July 2001. Back then, even former CIA chief George Tenet advised against the use of armed drones by his agency, arguing that it would be "a terrible mistake [for] the CIA to fire a weapon like that." Nonetheless, in the post-9/11 atmosphere, criticism on the issue largely withered away, though it had lost nothing of its significance.
Among the issues raised in the discussion of the CIA drone program in Pakistan, two main criticisms stand out.
Firstly, it is the use of drones by a US intelligence agency to conduct clandestine strikes in a theater where the US military is currently not operating that is met with criticism, not the use of the technology as such. Thus, the CIA drone strikes not only covertly extend the war in South Asia, but the program’s secrecy also obscures the possible consequences if something goes wrong as no visible structures of accountability are in place. This creates a situation with the potential to open the floodgates to the indiscriminate use of CIA drones in other theaters worldwide, where the US military is prohibited to operate.
Secondly, connected to this, it is claimed that the CIA drone strikes amount to a program of extrajudicial targeted killings without a clear guiding policy.
In 2009, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions Philip Alston stated that "the onus is really on the US government to reveal more about the ways in which it makes sure that arbitrary extra judicial executions aren’t in fact being carried out through the use of these weapons."
Given that both the definition of acceptable high value targets by the US and the geographic scope of the program appear to keep broadening, the unchallenged usage by Washington of what it had criticized other countries for only a few years previously raises the question of whether such strikes are now more legitimate because it is the US that perpetrates them.
So far, Washington has refused to disclose the legal basis of the program, the precautions taken to ensure the legality of the targets under international humanitarian law as well as potential review mechanisms after the strike, and the safeguards designed to minimize civilian harm.
What we are witnessing in northwest Pakistan is the massive expansion of a new method of warfare, spearheaded by the US. It is a war that promises quick and seemingly clean successes without having to put one’s own troops in danger. Nonetheless, it also has the potential to ultimately result in state-ordered murder, eroding the international norm against targeted assassinations. For this reason, there is the need for a large public debate about the use of armed drones by a US intelligence agency.
The US administration would be well advised to bring more transparency into the CIA program with regard to any relevant bilateral agreement between the US and the states where the CIA deploys armed drones as well as to the legal grounds on which it justifies who and what constitutes a legitimate target. Moreover, it should seek a binding, over-arching legal regime that governs the utilization of armed drones internationally, clarifying ambiguities and grey areas.
By putting the use of armed drones by the military and intelligence agencies on a solid legal fundament, such a regime would likely create greater support for drone strikes even within Pakistan, allow for the prosecution of potential misuse, and regulate their deployment in conflicts to come.
Failure to do so undermines the US stance of occupying the moral high ground in this war and may sooner rather than later rebound upon the US itself.