Under Obama Only 13% of Drone Strikes Killed Leaders of Taliban or Al Qaeda

Obama administration officials often speak about how drone strikes target suspected terrorists plotting against the U.S., but according to the New York Times the U.S. has shifted away from that. Instead, it now often targets 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.

Justin Elliott of propublica.org conducted an interview with  Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations on the issue of the ever expanding U.S. drone war:

 

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.

There are a couple pieces of data showing this. Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation has done estimates on who among those killed could be considered “militant leaders” — either of the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban, or Al Qaeda. Under the Bush administration, about 30 percent of those killed could be considered militant leaders. Under Obama, that figure is only 13 percent.

Most of the people who are killed don’t have as their objective to strike the U.S. homeland. Most of the people who are killed by drones want to impose some degree of sharia law where they live, they want to fight a defensive jihad against security service and the central government, or they want to unseat what they perceive as an apostate regime that rules their country.

Why does this distinction matter so much?

This is a huge outstanding dilemma. Is the primary purpose of the drone attacks counter-terrorism, or is it counter-insurgency? If it’s counter-insurgency, that is a very different mission, and you have to rethink the justifications and rethink what the ultimate goal is of using lethal force.

There was a February article in the New York Times reporting that the goal of U.S. policy in Yemen was to kill about two dozen Al Qaeda leaders. There’s been about 50 drone strikes in Yemen since that article. Meanwhile, according to U.S. government statements, the size of AQAP has grown from “several hundred” to “a few thousand members.” So the question is, who is actually being targeted, and how does this further U.S. counterterrorism objectives?

Read more here.

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