Congressional Democrats recently announced two bills aimed at improving how the Pentagon investigates and prevents civilian harm. The tragic drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan, which killed 10 civilians – including seven children – on August 29, 2021, has prompted lawmakers to act. Their efforts have been a long time coming, as calls for investigations and transparency into the civilian toll of US drone strikes have intensified in recent years and reports from the field document civilian casualties unaccounted for by the US military.
Greater congressional oversight is badly needed, even given the improvements made by US combat commands and the Pentagon itself. But Congress should also turn its attention to the risks to civilians perpetuated in an “over the horizon” posture.
Armed drones appeared to meet a requirement for the fight against terrorism. As a tactical weapons system, they offered the ability to hit targets with seemingly little risk – drone strikes meant the US could hunt down bad guys without inserting special forces teams into dangerous situations. Few would give up on this option, and every US president has embraced the use of armed drones since 2001.
Drone strikes have become part of a counterterrorism strategy that has degraded leadership networks and disrupted operations. The demand for drones has only increased, especially as the desire to minimize the US military footprint in counterterrorism theaters has also increased. Crucially, the drone program has bought U.S.-backed partners in Yemen and Somalia time and space to reclaim ground from terrorist groups, maintaining counterterrorism pressure on cells plotting attacks. transnational. The drones also gave reach where the United States had no counterterrorism partners. In Syria, for example, drone strikes targeted senior al-Qaeda operatives planning attacks in 2014.
Drone strikes are now a primary tool supporting the counter-terrorism approach on the horizon. US forces are no longer deployed in significant numbers to conduct ground operations against groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The idea is to minimize the force commitments and resources needed to defend the American homeland and overseas interests against terrorists. Drone strikes and the rare raid by special operations forces will, in theory, prevent these groups from developing transnational attack capabilities. US-backed counterterrorism partners (absent in Afghanistan) will fight terrorist groups on the ground.
Aside from other problems with the approach, such as its long-term effectiveness, counterterrorism on the horizon inherently puts civilians at greater risk. The use of drone strikes – killing individuals identified as posing a threat to US interests – creates the risk of misidentification with irreversible results. The likelihood of targeting errors increases as the intelligence picture deteriorates. Signals and satellite intelligence are poor substitutes for the tactile perspective gained from field reports. Fishing rods can look like weapons or jugs of water can be mistaken for containers of explosives, as was the case during the Kabul strike on August 29. Missiles fired by drones are designed to kill. More recent innovations, such as the “ninja” missile, use blades rather than explosives to minimize collateral damage, but even then the target must be the right one.
Additionally, relying on partners makes it harder for the U.S. military to limit civilian harm, even while operating under Leahy restrictions. US-backed counterterrorism forces may be preferable to US troops in most cases, but they don’t have the same capabilities, training or discipline. The previous examples indicate the virtual certainty of significant collateral damage. US-backed Syrian forces nearly destroyed the city of Raqqa, Syria, recapturing it from Islamic State in 2017. US-backed Libyan forces against Islamic State in Sirte, Libya, have been accused of abusive behavior, including arbitrary detention, torture and looting. Partner forces rarely hold themselves to the same standards as the US military, which is unique in its efforts to avoid harming civilians in conflict. Just look at examples in Syria, Ukraine or Yemen where civilian lives matter less.
Drone strikes are an important tool in the fight against terrorism and can significantly disrupt enemy operations. Likewise, partners in the fight against terrorism are necessary. These should be elements supporting a broader and more comprehensive strategy to defeat al-Qaeda, Islamic State and other like-minded groups, not the sum total of it. The shift to an over-the-horizon counterterrorism posture locks the United States into a cycle of threat management, assuming the threat is known in advance.
While congressional efforts to gain additional transparency and accountability from the Pentagon for military operations that cause harm to civilians are positive, they do not challenge the reliance on these types of military operations that are likely to harm civilians in the first place. Congress is also expected to lobby the Biden administration for its theory of how the threat from al-Qaeda and Islamic State will be reduced in the long term.
Katherine Zimmerman is a member of the American Institute of Enterprise and an advisor for its Critical Threats Project. Follow her on Twitter @KatieZimmerman.