President Obama’s new guidelines on drone strikes abroad are likely to curtail the number of attacks the United States carries out, according to defense experts.
The White House’s codified policy signed by the president this week requires a “continuing, imminent” threat before terrorists are targeted. The directive also requires “near-certainty” that civilians will not be harmed in the strike.
Defense analysts say that the emphasis on avoiding civilian casualties will reduce — or perhaps eliminate altogether — the use of “signature” strikes, where unidentified people are targeted on the basis of suspicious activities.
“The announcement that they’ll avoid civilian casualties to the greatest extent possible — what that says is no more signature attacks,” said James Lewis, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The signature attacks are probably the source of a lot of the civilian casualties.”
But he also expressed caution about using drone strikes, as he discussed the importance of seeing the U.S. war on terror come to a close.
“To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance,” Obama said in his speech at National Defense University. “For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power — or risk abusing it.”
Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, said that the president’s comments reflect a sense that drone attacks can now be subject to the same rules surrounding the use of force for more traditional military power.
“The sense of the emergency that surrounded the global war on terror is gradually dissipating, so the way in which weapons like drones are used will be subject to more normal standards,” Thompson said.
Republicans, however, have pushed back at Obama’s notion that the war on terror is drawing to a close.
“I believe we are still in a long, drawn-out conflict with al Qaeda, and to somehow argue that al-Qaeda is ‘on the run’ comes from a degree of unreality that to me is really incredible,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “Al Qaeda will be with us for a long time.”
Some military experts are skeptical that the president’s speech reflects a major pivot point in the U.S. drone war.
Michael O’Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, said the use of drones in the Middle East is already on the decline, thanks to earlier administration policy decisions, a lowered threat and the damage the strikes have caused to relations with Pakistan.
The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in 2014 will only further reduce the need for drone attacks against those posing an “imminent” threat to the U.S. and its forces, he said.
“We were already on a downward trajectory,” O’Hanlon said. “I’m dubious things are going to change that much.”
The use of drones in Pakistan and Yemen, which began under the George W. Bush administration, has ramped up during Obama’s presidency. Drone strikes in Pakistan peaked at 122 in 2010. There were 48 attacks last year and there have been 12 so far in 2013.
Controversy has surrounded the number of civilian casualties that occur in the attacks, with differing estimates about how many have been killed at the hands of U.S. drones. The New America Foundation, which is viewed as an authority tracking drone strikes, estimates there have been between 258 and 307 civilians killed in Pakistan.
Critics of drone use warn that the attacks have become the most effective recruiting tool for militants aiming to stir-up anti-U.S. sentiment.
Thompson said that the stricter guidelines on drone strikes could give officials pause before a strike is authorized.
“Both the intelligence community and the military are now on notice that they must be able to justify doing new drone strikes if there’s a danger it could go wrong,” Thompson said.
As part of the directive, Obama is expected to shift drone operations from the CIA to the Pentagon, and is also reportedly going to take a greater personal role in the decision-making.
Obama also said in his speech that he wanted the administration to review ideas like creating a drone court or independent oversight board to review or sign off on strikes.
Michael Rubin, an analyst at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said that the transparency was good in theory, but he said he was concerned that added bureaucracy could lead to missed opportunities to target terrorists.
“The idea of ever having a target of opportunity is gone, because it would take too long to get that much oversight,” Rubin said.