During the presidential campaign, President Obama made much of the notion that he would pursue a dramatically different counterterrorism policy than his predecessor. This was one of the motivating factors behind the now nearly-forgotten Cairo speech. However, that speech and the President’s efforts to close Guantanamo and to try some of the 9/11 terrorists in the United States has obscured the fact that in many ways Obama has continued, even expanded, the counterterrorism programs of the Bush era. He recently adopted a Bush-like approach to the war in Afghanistan, choosing to surge 30,000 U.S. troops (albeit with the fig leaf promise to begin withdrawing them by July 2011).
The Obama counterterrorism strategy is more than just a continuation of the Bush approach. It is increasingly a program on remote control, relying on strikes with unmanned drones and operations by the CIA and Special Forces. According to The New York Times, the Obama Administration has conducted at least 53 missile strikes with Predator unmanned aircraft, against terrorist targets in western Pakistan in just its first year, more than during Bush’s entire presidency. According to the Times, soon after taking office Obama ordered a doubling of the use of armed drones over Pakistan as well as their deployment to Yemen and Somalia. These drone attacks have killed a number of important terrorist targets including Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, one of Osama bin Laden’s sons and the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a close ally of Al Qaeda. While the media focuses on the fallout from the recent intelligence failure, Predator strikes continued; six have been conducted in just the last week in the tribal region of western Pakistan. One such strike was conducted yesterday, allegedly against militants who assisted in the suicide bomber attack on the secret CIA base in Afghanistan.
With respect to countering the terrorist threat in the so-called AfPak area, President Obama appears to be talking the Bush talk while walking the Biden walk. It was the Vice President who was reported to have advocated a different strategy with respect to Afghanistan, one that involved greater use of drones and no increase in U.S. troops on the ground.
The use of drones (the military prefers to call them “unmanned aerial systems” or even “remotely operated vehicles”) has become a key aspect of both U.S. counterterrorism strategy as well as coalition military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Almost two years ago, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates levied a requirement on the Air Force to develop the capability to conduct 50 continuous Predator orbits in support of U.S. forces operating in Iraq and Afghanistan. The military is buying dozens of the Shadow, Predator and Global Hawk high-flying, long endurance drones and literally hundreds of smaller, lower-flying and shorter-range drones with names such as Scan Eagle, Fire Scout, Wasp and Raven. Predators are also being acquired by the Department of Homeland Security. Most drones are used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. However, the military (and we must assume the CIA) also are buying an increasing number of the appropriately named MQ-9 “Reaper” variant of the Predator that can fire Hellfire missiles.
The use of unmanned drones to take the fight to terrorists hiding out in the wilds of Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia makes sense. At the same time, the fact that most of the U.S. counterterrorism strategy is being done remotely — and secretly — raises a number of concerns. For all of its problems, operations by regular military forces are subject to all kinds of oversight, scrutiny and public discussion. The new war by remote control inherently is less subject to controls. There is a cost to pay, including but certainly not limited to the civilian casualties caused by drone attacks.
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