After the execution of a second American by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the war drums are beating much louder. This recent atrocity also begs the question, is the U.S. at war with ISIS? If so, what would said war look like? ISIS and other terror groups have been able to use social media to their advantage. The U.S. drone campaign abroad has been fodder for terrorist groups such as al Qaeda to rally against the collateral damage of U.S. strikes, which by the estimates of the British-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism represent over 1,000 civilian casualties.
How successful has the U.S. drone campaign been so far? If success is measured by the amount of dangerous militants eliminated from the battlefield (those posing a threat to the U.S.), then the drone campaign has been successful. If success is measured through deterrence (discouraging those from choosing to join radical groups with the threat of death), the counterterror policy of drones is not as effective. In fact, there is evidence that indicates the exact opposite: Collateral damage associated with U.S. drone strikes has fueled some moderate Muslims to take up arms in revenge for the missiles fired on their villages, especially in Yemen.
While collateral damage, and even the idea of the targeted killing program's arguable conflict with existing international human rights laws, have presented a public relations problem for the United States, some officials are pushing back against this notion. In a recent article by Air Force Capt. Joseph Chapa regarding the negative connotations of the U.S. drone campaign, Chapa noted that al Qaeda and Taliban PR strategies against the United States for collateral damage are "effective in spite of the fact that US RPA [remotely piloted aircraft] strikes avoid civilians about 86 percent of the time and that al-Qaeda purposefully targets them [civilians]," while the United States does not. In terms of collateral damage, a report by the Stimson Center stated that, "[l]ethal UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] strikes frequently have been criticized for their alleged tendency to cause excessive civilian casualties. This criticism has little basis in fact. Contrary to popular belief, UAV technologies, in fact, enable greater precision in targeting than most other common means of warfare." Collateral damage can generally be attributed to missions in high-risk areas.
Focusing on what a ramped-up military response to ISIS may look like and concerns of an overcautious president, it is important to point out that President Obama has not been hesitant to use force against other terrorist entities in the past. In fact, the criticism and anti-American PR campaigns stem generally from an aggressive drone campaign. Possibilities for lethargy concerning ISIS strategies are domestic legal authority, state sovereignty and lack of available direct partners. Obama has relied on the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force to issue strikes against al Qaeda and associate forces, but several legal scholars believe ISIS falls outside this authorization since they split with al Qaeda. The U.S. would also violate the sovereignty of Syria if they began a drone campaign in Syrian airspace — not to mention that the Syrian government has more sophisticated anti-aircraft equipment to which low and slow flying weaponized drones are susceptible. Lastly, the U.S. enjoys loose agreements with the governments in the countries where it issues drone strikes, albeit support is not always overt.
Former U.S. representative and current president and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson Center, Jane Harman, has been orating for a long time that "don't do stupid stuff" plus drones are not sufficient counterterrorism policies. The administration will likely need an authorization from Congress to ramp up attacks against ISIS, especially in Syria, and it is unclear what a new authorization will look like or how it will be implemented by military officials under the vision of the commander-in-chief. One thing to look for will be the continued use of drones against ISIS in an extended counterterrorism policy.
Pomerleau is a freelance journalist based in Washington covering politics and policy. Follow him @MpoM24.