Three Troubling Lessons from the Latest U.S. Drone Strikes

The 'Forever War' continues in Pakistan and Yemen even as public focus shifts to Iraq

pakistan US drone strike
SB SHAH/AFP/Getty Images
A Pakistani child sifts through rubble following a U.S. drone strike.
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As the deteriorating security situation in Iraq once again dominates headlines in the U.S., America's dirty wars in the Middle East and South Asia continue with no sign of abating. Last week, the United States carried out one drone strike in Yemen and two in Pakistan, killing an estimated total of between 15 and 22 people, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, an organization that tracks drone strikes closely. All of the dead were reported to be militants; human rights advocates note, however, that such claims are often discovered to be inaccurate or misleading following further investigation.

The attacks received relatively scant media attention compared to the worsening violence in Iraq. But despite President Obama's rhetoric that "this war, like all wars, must end," there seems to be no end in sight in the often-amorphous war on terrorism. Some observers have christened this ongoing conflict the "Forever War." In a recent hearing, a top Pentagon lawyer reiterated that the list of organizations the U.S. considers itself at war with is classified.

The two strikes in Pakistan were the first of 2014, breaking a nearly six-month pause in the CIA's drone campaign there. As Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations noted in a recent blog post, June 17th, 2014 marks 10 years of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. "Never before in U.S. history has such a lengthy and lethal military campaign been so inadequately described or justified by the government, which retains the fiction that these strikes are 'covert' and unworthy of public examination," wrote Zenko

Here are three troubling takeaways from the recent strikes:

1. The U.S. may be targeting enemies of foreign governments, not imminent threats to the U.S.

The two strikes in Pakistan came after the breakdown of peace talks between the Pakistani government and the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), which ended after a brutal attack carried out by Uzbekistan militants in coordination with the TTP on the Karachi airport, resulting in 36 deaths. Pakistan is now waging a major offensive in the tribal region of North Waziristan, aimed at dislodging militant groups there.

Reports conflict on who the targets of each strike were, but at least one and possibly both strikes were aimed at members of the Haqqani network, frequent targets of the drone program and the group that until recently held U.S. Sargeant Bowe Bergdahl captive. Some have speculated that following Bergdahl's release, the CIA – which operates the drone program in Pakistan – may have had more leeway to strike the group.

But one of the two strikes may have targeted Uzbek fighters, which could raise questions about whether the CIA is targeting threats to the U.S. – or enemies of the Pakistani government. "Generally speaking, the drones have targeted people who are perceived to be at war with the U.S.," says Mustafa Qadri, lead author of an Amnesty International report released last year on drone strikes in Pakistan. "But in the strike against the Uzbeks, they're targeting people who were claiming responsibility for the attack in Pakistan. It looks like we're going back to a period where there was very direct coordination between the Pakistanis and the Americans."

Reuters quoted two officials in Pakistan's government as saying the U.S. had "express approval" for the strikes, a drastic turnaround from recent years. The nation's Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed the opposite, however, calling the strikes "a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

The drone program in Pakistan began in 2004 with what some have called a "bargain chip killing," in which the U.S. allegedly targeted a Pakistani militant who had been deemed an enemy of the state, but posed no threat to the U.S.. In return, as reported by The New York Times' Mark Mazzetti, Pakistan allowed the CIA to use its airspace to attack members of al Qaeda.

A similar dynamic seems to be at play in Yemen. What appears to be a U.S. drone strike killed five alleged members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) on Friday. Though the group is generally considered the most dangerous active branch of al Qaeda, some observers are skeptical that every target is a legitimate threat to the U.S.. "The U.S. increasingly appears to be a acting as a proxy Air Force for Yemen in its civil war with AQAP," says Letta Tayler, terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch. "It's hard to believe that the hundreds of Yemenis killed in U.S. drone strikes all posed an imminent threat to Americans and we know that in at least some cases these strikes have unlawfully killed civilians."

2. This may be what the near-term future of U.S. military force looks like.

As the U.S. watches sectarian conflict expand in Iraq and Syria, pressure for the Obama administration to intervene somehow is likely to grow. ISIS, the group behind the recent turmoil in Iraq, is arguably a greater threat to the U.S. than local enemies in Yemen or Pakistan; Secretary of State John Kerry has said the administration is open to considering drone strikes in Iraq, and the U.S. has secretly been flying a small number of surveillance drones over the country for the last year, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Beyond Iraq, Obama has argued that rather than take unilateral military action, the U.S. needs to partner with local governments to address local threats. In a recent speech at West Point, President Obama said that he was "calling on Congress to support a new Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund of up to $5 billion, which will allow us to train, build capacity, and facilitate partner countries on the front lines" in countries like Mali, Libya and Somalia. This program, combined with the recent drone strikes, suggests that it's unlikely the U.S. will shift from has been termed a "perpetual war-time footing" any time soon.

3. We still have a long way to go on transparency.

The U.S. drone programs that currently exist are shrouded in secrecy, as would almost certainly be the case with any future programs. Human rights attorney and professor Sarah Knuckey recently referred to a "depressing pattern" of how drone strikes are discussed in the media – from initial media reports, to investigations and calls for transparency, to official denials and anonymous defenses from the U.S. government.

"Did the U.S. resume drone strikes because the Pakistani talks had failed, or because of the Bergdahl release, or the second round of the Afghan elections, or a mix of the above?" says Rachel Reid, director of the Regional Policy Initiative on Afghanistan and Pakistan at Open Society. "Secrecy and obfuscation by the American and Pakistani governments means we can only speculate. Greater transparency and accountability is long overdue. The American people deserve to know who their government is killing, and how much longer this will go on."

That's a sentiment Letta Tayler, the Human Rights Watch researcher, echoes. "It is long past time for Obama to reveal who the U.S. is killing in Yemen and why," she says, "and to make amends when strikes go awry."