Will Biden's Drone Policy Get Back to the Basics? | Opinion

Is the United States truly wrapping up 20 consecutive years of "relentless war," as President Joe Biden said during his Sept. 21 address at the United Nations? At first glance, it would appear so. In July, the Biden administration announced the U.S. combat mission in Iraq would end by the end of the year (although the significance of that decision is debatable). And on Aug. 30, the U.S. completed its troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, ending two decades of conflict.

The U.S. war on terrorism, however, is still very much alive. In reality, what the Biden administration is broadcasting as an end of an era is actually a continuation—except instead of thousands of troops on the ground and a system of forward operating bases in-country, the U.S. will be relying on discreet measures like drone strikes and "over-the-horizon" operations. But if Washington isn't careful, the allure of targeted killing can generate even more problems. The U.S. must be far more specific about which terrorist groups it chooses to go after.

Targeted killing of terrorists overseas isn't a new phenomenon. The first time the U.S. employed an armed drone to kill an adversary was during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, when a Predator fired a missile at the compound of the Mullah Mohammed Omar, the late Taliban founder (the strike killed a few bodyguards outside, but missed the house). Over the years, successive U.S. administrations utilized armed drones as their weapon of choice for counterterrorism operations. Former President Barack Obama conducted 353 drone strikes in Pakistan during his administration, a seven-fold increase from the 48 launched during the George W. Bush administration. Former President Donald Trump broadened the use of drones even further, granting more authority to commanders on the ground without having to seek White House approval.

During President Biden's first 10 months, the rate of drone strikes and other over-the-horizon operations has gone down considerably. According to the New America Foundation, the U.S. struck al-Shabaab in Somalia four times this year, including an Aug. 1 strike against one of the group's fighting positions. U.S. aircraft have also been active in Syria, where an MQ-9 killed a senior Al-Qaeda operative on Oct. 22. Afghanistan is likely to be a prime destination for similar strikes in the future; U.S. officials are currently negotiating with Pakistan for long-term access to its airspace, a harbinger for what may come.

President Joe Biden speaks
President Joe Biden speaks about the authorization of the COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5-11, in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus on Nov. 3, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

As the U.S. is talking with Islamabad over access to Pakistani air corridors, the White House remains engaged in its own review of targeted killing policy. If public reporting is accurate, the new policy will maintain some degree of operational flexibility for commanders in Afghanistan and Somalia to order strikes independently (albeit with higher standards of certainty) while instituting a more stringent approval process for strikes in countries where targeted killing is infrequent. This could come as a bitter pill for those who strongly believe targeted killings take the lives of too many innocent civilians. Those concerns have merit—the killing of an Afghan aid worker in Kabul last August, followed by the top U.S. commander in the Middle East publicly apologizing weeks later, is an ugly reminder of how faulty intelligence can have deadly consequences.

Over-the-horizon strikes, however, won't go away anytime soon and are likely to increase in importance as the U.S. pivots military resources toward the Indo-Pacific. This shouldn't be surprising—coordinated special operations raids and strikes from manned and unmanned U.S. aircraft have proven to be highly effective in neutralizing senior terrorist targets. In fact, the scope and technical capacity of the U.S. surveillance network is so impressive that it is practically impossible for terrorist groups to build the kinds of safe-havens Al-Qaeda enjoyed in Afghanistan during the late 1990s.

But just because the U.S. can find, track and kill terrorists wherever they are doesn't mean the U.S. shouldn't be judicious about utilizing this capability. Not all terrorists possess the intent or capability to launch attacks against the U.S. homeland and many have no interest in trying for fear of the inevitable U.S. retaliation that would occur. Yet there have been many instances in the past when U.S. drones have set their sights on groups with predominately local or regional agendas, whether it was the Pakistani Taliban or al-Shabaab—two organizations that are indisputably vicious in their tactics, but nevertheless more interested in waging insurgencies against local governments.

The issue, then, is not targeted killing per se, but who U.S. officials choose to target. Washington is prone to confusing domestic insurgencies with anti-U.S. terrorist organizations, in the process creating more resentment among local populations and placing the U.S. in the middle of other country's internal conflicts.

When the Biden administration's targeted killing policy is eventually published, much of the attention will focus on how the White House will mitigate civilian casualties. But none of these bureaucratic reforms will be sufficient unless the U.S. gets back to the basics and remembers why platforms like armed drones were built in the first place: to interrupt and disrupt terrorists who are planning direct attacks against the U.S. The alternative would mean waging battle against every terrorist group on the planet, tying the U.S. military to tertiary disputes and complicating President Biden's goal to move on from an era of endless warfare.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for Newsweek.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.