Last week the Washington Post, citing unnamed US officials, reported that the CIA has revived a controversial aspect of its drone program known as “signature strikes” – a way to target groups of individuals based not on their known identities but on age range and suspicious patterns of behavior. This policy came under fire earlier this year in April when a CIA drone strike in Pakistan killed two hostages, including a 73-year-old American aid worker, Warren Weinstein. These developments indicate the Obama administration is backtracking on statements it made in 2013 signaling a shift away from the deadly policy.
The CIA’s use of signature strikes has long been controversial. In 2011, the US Ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, clashed with CIA director Leon Panetta over their use. When asked by Tara McKelvey of the Daily Beast what the definition is of who can be targeted, Ambassador Munter replied, “The definition is a male between the ages of 20 and 40. My feeling is one man’s combatant is another man’s—well, a chump who went to a meeting.” Munter was not opposed to the strikes altogether, but had his reservations about how the CIA executed the policy.
In one notable incident, 42 people were killed by a drone strike in Pakistan’s North Waziristan region when tribal elders attended a meeting to resolve a dispute over a chromite mine. The Pakistani military was notified of the community meeting, known as a jirga, 10 days in advance. The meeting was also chaired by a well known political liaison that acted as a bridge between the government, military and other tribal leaders. Yet that didn’t stop two drones from hovering overhead, firing several missiles into the crowd, killing over forty people instantly. The attack caused a public outcry and added further strain on the already tense relationship between Pakistan and the US at the time.
When Ambassador Munter resigned in 2012, a former head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, Robert Grenier, used the moment to criticize the US strategy of expanding its drone program to Yemen. “One wonders how many Yemenis may be moved in future to violent extremism in reaction to carelessly targeted missile strikes, and how many Yemeni militants with strictly local agendas will become dedicated enemies of the West in response to US military actions against them,” he said in a column written for Al Jazeera. He presciently warned “the US would be wise to calibrate its actions in Yemen in such a way as to avoid making that obscure and relatively limited and containable threat into the Arabian equivalent of Waziristan.”
In the three years since that column was published, Yemen has indeed turned into the Arabian peninsula’s “equivalent of Waziristan”. Al Qaeda’s local franchise known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has gained swaths of territory, the official government in Sana’a collapsed after being overrun by Shiite rebels, and ISIS has reportedly taken root, claiming responsibility for a deadly bombing in Sana’a just last week. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that from 2012-2015, over 100 confirmed US drone strikes have hit Yemen, killing 456-676 individuals, while an estimated 10%-20% were civilian casualties. It is important to note, that while the US engages in drone warfare in Yemen against Al-Qaeda, it is also providing logistical support to a Saudi Arabia-led bombing campaign there against Al Qaeda’s sworn enemy, the Shiite Houthi rebels, which is further adding to the chaos and misery of local Yemenis – while possibly even helping Al Qaeda gain territory by pushing back against their most formidable enemy on the ground.
While the immediate blowback of the CIA’s drone policy – the destabilization of the target area and metastization of local insurgencies – should be enough reason to eliminate the flawed policy, the long term blowback from our unchecked global drone campaign is far scarier. A study last year led by retired military and Pentagon officials including General John Abizaid, the head of the US Central Command during the Iraq War, reported on the dire global implications of the CIA’s unchecked drone campaign. The study emphasized the destabilizing effects of drone use, and warned of the “erosion of sovereignty norms” and “a slippery slope leading to continual or wider wars.” Another recurring theme in the report is the threat to global stability posed by other nations beginning to develop the technology and engage in their own drone operations:
“The US use of lethal UAVs for targeted strikes outside of hot battlefields is likely to be imitated by other states. Such potential future increase in the use of lethal UAV strikes by foreign states may cause or increase instability, and further increase the risk of widening conflicts in regions around the globe…
From the perspective of many around the world, the United States currently appears to claim, in effect, the legal right to kill any person it determines is a member of Al-Qaeda or its associated forces, in any state on Earth, at any time, based on secret criteria and secret evidence… and with no means for anyone outside that process to identify or remedy mistakes or abuses. U.S. practices set a dangerous precedent that may be seized upon by other states — not all of which are likely to behave as scrupulously as U.S. officials.”
As the center of gravity of the global economy shifts away from America and the West towards Asia, political and military power will likely shift with it. Do we really want to set a precedent that a nation may send armed drones into any territory in the world to target its perceived enemies for assassination? Given President Obama’s rhetoric in 2013, it seemed for a moment that the administration was responding to criticism and public pressure and intended to move away from relying so heavily on the policy. Yet given the recent “signature strikes” and the increasing pace of drone operations in Yemen in the last six months, it seems the President never got his own memo.