Relying on ‘over-the-horizon’ counterterrorism increases risk to civilians

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Among drones utilized by the U.S. military is the Global Hawk, a high-altitude, long-endurance, remotely piloted aircraft with an integrated sensor.

Congressional Democrats recently announced two bills aimed at improving how the Pentagon investigates and prevents civilian harm. The tragic drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan, that killed 10 civilians — seven of them children — on Aug. 29, 2021, spurred lawmakers into action. Their effort has been a long time coming, as calls for investigations and transparency into the civilian toll of U.S. drone strikes have ramped up in recent years and field reports document civilian casualties left uncounted by the U.S. military. 

More congressional oversight is direly needed, even given improvements from U.S. combatant commands and the Pentagon itself. But Congress also should turn its attention to risks to civilians perpetuated in an “over-the-horizon” posture.

Armed drones emerged to fill a counterterrorism requirement. As a tactical weapons system, they delivered a capability to strike targets with seemingly little risk — drone strikes meant the U.S. could hunt down the bad guys without inserting special forces teams into dangerous situations. Few would pass on that option, and every U.S. president has embraced the use of armed drones since 2001.

Drone strikes became part and parcel of a counterterrorism strategy that degraded leadership networks and disrupted operations. The demand for drones only increased, particularly as the desire to minimize the U.S. military footprint in counterterrorism theaters also grew. Crucially, the drone program bought time and space for U.S.-backed partners in Yemen and Somalia to take back terrain from terrorist groups, keeping counterterrorism pressure on cells plotting transnational attacks. Drones also gave reach where the U.S. had no counterterrorism partners. In Syria, drone strikes picked off senior al Qaeda leaders planning attacks in 2014, for example.

Drone strikes are now a primary tool supporting the over-the-horizon counterterrorism approach. U.S. forces no longer are deployed in significant numbers to conduct ground operations against groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The idea is to minimize force commitments and the resources required to defend America’s homeland and interests abroad from terrorists. Drone strikes and the rare special operations force raid will, in theory, prevent these groups from developing transnational attack capabilities. U.S.-backed counterterrorism partners (absent in Afghanistan) will combat the terrorist groups on the ground.

Setting aside other problems with the approach, such as its long-term effectiveness, over-the-horizon counterterrorism inherently puts civilians at more risk. The reliance on drone strikes — killing individuals identified as posing a threat to U.S. interests — creates the potential for misidentification with irreversible results. The likelihood of targeting errors rises as the intelligence picture deteriorates. Signals and satellite intelligence are poor substitutes for the tactile perspective gleaned from on-the-ground reports. Fishing poles can look like weapons or water jugs be mistaken for explosive containers, as was the case in the Aug. 29 Kabul strike. The missiles that drones fire are designed to kill. Newer innovations, such as the “ninja” missile, use blades over explosives to minimize collateral damage but even then, the target needs to be right.

Additionally, relying on partners makes it harder for the U.S. military to limit civilian harm, even operating under Leahy restrictions. U.S.-backed counterterrorism forces may be preferable to American troops in most cases, but they do not have the same capabilities, training or discipline. Previous examples point to the near certainty of significant collateral damage. U.S.-backed Syrian forces nearly destroyed the city of Raqqa, Syria, taking it back from the Islamic State in 2017. U.S.-backed Libyan forces against the Islamic State in Sirte, Libya, were accused of abusive behavior, including arbitrary detention, torture and looting. Partnered forces also rarely hold themselves to the same standards as the U.S. military, which is unique in its efforts to avoid civilian harm in conflict. One need only look at examples in Syria, Ukraine or Yemen where civilian lives matter less. 

Drone strikes are an important counterterrorism tool and can substantially disrupt enemy operations. Likewise, counterterrorism partners are necessary. These should be components supporting a broader, more comprehensive strategy to defeat al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other like-minded groups, not the sum total of it. The shift to an over-the-horizon counterterrorism posture locks the U.S. in a cycle of threat management, assuming that the threat becomes known in advance.

While the efforts in Congress to gain additional transparency into and accountability from the Pentagon for military operations that cause civilian harm are positive, they fall short of questioning the reliance on these types of military operations that are prone to causing civilian harm in the first place. Congress also should press the Biden administration for its theory on how al Qaeda’s and the Islamic State’s threat will be reduced over the long term.

Katherine Zimmerman is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and an adviser to its Critical Threats Project. Follow her on Twitter @KatieZimmerman.

Tags Al Qaeda armed drones counterterrorism ISIS US military

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