Have U.S. Drones Become a ‘Counterinsurgency Air Force’ for Our Allies?
On Sunday the New York Times reported that the Obama administration, prompted by the possibility of losing the election, has been developing a “formal rule book” to govern the use of drone strikes, which have killed roughly 2,500 people under President Obama.
One aspect of the piece in particular caught our eye: While administration officials frequently talk about how drone strikes target suspected terrorists plotting against the U.S., the Times says the U.S. has shifted away from that. Instead, it has often targeted enemies of allied governments in countries such as Yemen and Pakistan. From the Times:
[F]or at least two years in Pakistan, partly because of the C.I.A.’s success in decimating Al Qaeda’s top ranks, most strikes have been directed at militants whose main battle is with the Pakistani authorities or who fight with the Taliban against American troops in Afghanistan.
In Yemen, some strikes apparently launched by the United States killed militants who were preparing to attack Yemeni military forces. Some of those killed were wearing suicide vests, according to Yemeni news reports.
To learn more about this underappreciated aspect of U.S. drone policy, I spoke to Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has been critical of U.S. drone policy and was quoted in the Times piece. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You were quoted over the weekend arguing that the U.S., with the campaign of drone strikes, is acting as the “counterinsurgency air force of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.” How did you come to this conclusion?
Under the Obama administration, officials have argued that the drone strikes are only hitting operational Al Qaeda leaders or people who posed significant and imminent threats to the U.S. homeland. If you actually look at the vast majority of people who have been targeted by the United States, that’s not who they are.