Defense Media Network

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Obama’s UAV Strikes in Pakistan

President Barack Obama is reported to have a kill list that he reviews on Tuesday mornings. There are many bad people in the world who are actively seeking to harm the United States and its citizens. It makes sense that the president would have a running list of people who should cease and desist, or die. America’s Predator UAVs are decimating al Qaeda’s ranks and doing it without putting American lives in jeopardy, but the president’s kill orders raise difficult questions and present troubling potential ramifications.

After 9/11, President George W. Bush called Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in for a meeting and said in reference to the terrorist attacks, “Don’t ever let this happen again,” jabbing a finger at his chest. (Note: This author was not in the Oval Office at the time but has it on good authority that the conversation happened as such.) That order was passed on to all the other senior government leaders, and more than a decade later, it seems the imperative has not waned.

There’s nothing overtly wrong with that sentiment – life is a precious thing and whatever can be done to prevent atrocities should be done. But at what point does a relentless pursuit of the ideal cross a line and begin to cause more potential harm than good?


The Good

Al Qaeda is on the run. Terrorist safe havens are shrinking, funds are drying up and many of al Qaeda’s leaders are dead. What remains are jihadists with less experience and capacity to execute attacks.

MQ-1 Predator

An MQ-1 Predator in flight during a mission. The increasing use of UAVs to attack al Qaeda in safe havens has raised a number of questions. U.S. Air Force photo

Earlier this month (June), UAV strikes took out Abu Yahya al Libi, described as al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader, in a village in northwest Pakistan. Quoted in the New York Daily News, an unnamed U.S. official said al Libi “played a critical role in [al Qaeda’s] planning against the West, providing oversight of the external operations efforts,” adding that al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri will be “hard-pressed to find any one person who can readily step into [Libi’s] shoes.”

This is the second of Zawahiri’s deputies to die. His first, Atiyah Abdul Rahman, was killed by a UAV strike in August 2011. The list of al Qaeda members killed in UAV strikes also includes:

  • Anwar al-Awlaki – A leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen killed in 2011. He was particularly dangerous because he was an American and skilled at recruiting potential terrorists.
  • Ilyas Kashmiri – A senior operative and former Pakistani military officer, he was killed by UAV in Pakistan in 2011.
  • Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso – Killed in 2010, he was tied to the bombing of the USS Cole and was familiar with both Awlaki and two of the 9/11 hijackers.
  • Fateh al-Masri (aka Abdul Razzaq) – A senior al Qaeda commander killed in Datta Khel in North Waziristan in 2010.
  • Said Masri (aka Mustafa Abu Yazid) – An Egyptian and relative of Osama bin Laden through marriage, he was an operational leader, killed in rural Pakistan in 2010.
  • Zuhaib al-Zahibi – A commander killed in Pakistan (along with 14 others) in a barrage of 10 missiles from UAVs in 2009.

The list goes on. In taking out al Qaeda’s senior and mid-level leaders, the terrorist organization is continually left without experienced jihadists who could plot and lead an attack. Meanwhile, funding is lacking and homeland security efforts make attacking the United States increasingly difficult. While human death is nothing to be celebrated, there is a strong case to be made that these strikes saved lives and brought al Qaeda to its knees. Certainly, now is the time to kick them (or bomb them) while they’re down.


The Bad

Stopping terrorist plots that could threaten U.S. lives and interests is an important mandate for America’s military and intelligence communities. Additional considerations for America’s political leaders, however, are the diplomatic ramifications of UAV strikes.

To be sure, the Yemeni government is (at least publically) in support of the U.S. strikes against al Qaeda in Yemen’s lawless regions. Pakistan is not. In fact, they are vocal in their insistence that the United States stop UAV strikes within their sovereign borders.

The special operations forces strike against Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound in 2011 left the global community wondering whether elements of Pakistan’s government or military were in bed with the terrorist leader. Bin Laden’s death was critical to the wider fight against al Qaeda and terrorism, and it seems likely elements of the Pakistani government did know of bin Laden’s whereabouts.

President Obama at the NATO Summit

President Barack Obama speaks with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, center, and President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan at the McCormick Place Convention Center during the NATO Summit in Chicago, Ill., May 21, 2012. The ongoing drone strikes, among other things, have caused diplomatic relations between the United States and Pakistan to become strained. Official White House photo by Pete Souza

Islamabad has shown a reticence to go after al Qaeda in the lawless regions of western Pakistan. Then again, western Pakistan is a can of worms, full of not just al Qaeda but also the Pakistani Taliban and the Haqqani Network. These groups threaten U.S. interests and regional stability – to say nothing of the military operations in Afghanistan – and while the United States would be remiss to ignore the hotbed of militancy, is that sufficient justification to ignore the will of a sovereign nation and conduct strikes on their land without permission?

Diplomatic relations between the United States and Pakistan have been in a downward spiral for years, particularly since the attack on the Abbottabad compound and the ongoing UAV strikes. Maleeha Lodhi, former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, said of the countries’ current relations: “It has taken on attributes and characteristics now of a near adversarial relationship, even though neither side wants it to be that way.”

Pakistan for its part has refused U.S. use of Pakistani military bases, downgraded intelligence cooperation, threatened to bar all CIA operations in country, and thrown other roadblocks in the way of U.S. efforts to stamp out terrorist threats. Relations are made worse by Pakistan’s refusal to end a six-month blockade of NATO troop supplies destined for Afghanistan.

But Islamabad is also frustrated. They have been fighting a bloody Taliban insurgency inspired in part by Pakistan’s alliance with the United States, and the continued presence of UAVs over the objections of the Pakistani government only serves to further humiliate the government leadership in the face of rising anti-U.S. sentiment.

Recently, Obama gave the CIA the go ahead to continue its UAV strikes within Pakistan. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last week that the United States is “reaching the limits of our patience” with Pakistan’s refusal to do more to pursue al Qaeda and disrupt militancy within their borders.

As the UAVs continue to fly in Pakistani airspace, and as the Pakistani parliament continues to demand an end to the strikes, consider one possible outcome. What happens if the Pakistani air force shoots down an American UAV? What happens if they shoot down more than one?


The Ugly

The United States has launched some 300 UAV strikes in Pakistan since 2009, with others occurring in Yemen and Somalia. The New America Foundation has tracked the strikes from publically available reports and estimates 1,299 militants have been killed; NAF also estimates about 150 civilians have lost their lives.

It seems callous to term these deaths collateral damage, though that is certainly how they are rationalized against the greater need to halt terrorism and protect American lives. White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan classified the UAV strikes as “surgical” and said civilian casualties are “exceedingly rare.”

Drone Protests

Protestors demonstrating against U.S. drone strikes during the NATO Summit in Chicago, May 17, 2012. Photo courtesy of World Can’t Wait

Still, civilian causalities do occur. The New York Times reported the approach for targeting terrorists “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants…unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”

The posthumous vindication is probably of little condolence to the families of the dead civilians, but the greater issue is whether the loss of innocent life breeds more enemies. The point of all these UAV strikes is to stop al Qaeda, support efforts in Afghanistan and ultimately protect the homeland. Senior terrorist leaders are dead, but if the strikes are fostering greater anti-U.S. sentiment and driving a new generation of disenchanted youths into al Qaeda’s arms, how is success measured?

There is also an issue of legality. The president’s use of CIA resources to kill foreign citizens in foreign lands walks a fine line. Certainly the U.S. Constitution grants the president the power to use lethal force to protect the country from imminent attack, but that justification seems a stretch when considering militants half a world away hiding in rural areas.

As The New York Times reported on Sunday, the question is whether the United States is at war. If America is at war, the targeted killings are legal under domestic and international law. If not, they are assassinations.

“The criminal justice system allows government officials to target and kill only when doing so is required for self-defense or for the defense of others, and when there is no reasonable opportunity to capture the person instead,” writes John Witt in the Times.

America has not officially declared war since World War II. The country is fighting in Afghanistan, and while enemy combatants seek refuge in Pakistan, the United States is not at war with Pakistan. The president’s orders present thorny questions about the authority of his office and the legality of U.S. military operations abroad.

When President Bush pointed a finger at Rumsfeld back in 2001 and gave him the order to “never let [9/11] happen again,” the U.S. government and its leaders took decisive and praiseworthy action. More than a decade later, it hasn’t happened again, but as the UAVs again take to Pakistani skies, there are difficult questions about how the current president is pursuing that end.


Justin Hienz writes on counterterrorism, violent extremism and homeland security. In addition to his journalistic...

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    charles crabtree

    I totally agree with nthe President using drones to attack threats to our country.