Barack Obama took the oath of office three years ago, no one associated the phrase "targeted killing"
with his optimistic young presidency. In his inaugural address, the 47-year-old
former constitutional law professor uttered the word "terror" only once.
Instead, he promised to use technology to "harness the sun and the winds and
the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories."
Oddly, technology has enabled Obama to become something few
expected: a president who has dramatically expanded the executive branch's
ability to wage high-tech clandestine war. With a determination that has
surprised many, Obama has embraced the CIA,
expanded its powers, and approved more targeted killings than any modern
president. Over the last three years, the Obama administration has carried
out at least 239 covert drone strikes, more than five times the 44 approved
under George W. Bush. And after promising to make counterterrorism operations
more transparent and rein in executive power, Obama has arguably done the
opposite, maintaining secrecy and expanding presidential authority.
Just as importantly, the
administration's excessive use of drone attacks undercuts one of its most
laudable policies: a promising new post-9/11 approach to the use of lethal
American force, one of multilateralism, transparency, and
Obama's willingness to deploy lethal force should
have come as no surprise. In a 2002 speech, Illinois state senator Obama
opposed Bush's impending invasion of Iraq, but not all conflicts. "I don't
oppose all wars," he said. "What I am opposed to is a dumb war." And as
president, in his December 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Obama
warned, "There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in
concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified."
Since then, he has not only sent U.S. forces into Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya,
but also repeatedly approved commando raids in Pakistan and Somalia and on the
high seas, while presiding over a system that unleashed hundreds of drone
In a series of recent interviews, current and former
administration officials outlined what could be called an "Obama doctrine" on
the use of force. Obama's embrace of multilateralism, drone strikes, and a
light U.S. military presence in Libya, Pakistan, and Yemen, they contend, has
proved more effective than Bush's go-heavy approach in Iraq and Afghanistan. "We
will use force unilaterally if necessary against direct threats to the United
States," Ben Rhodes, the administration's deputy national security advisor for
strategic communications, told me. "And we'll use force in a very precise way."
Crises the administration deems
indirect threats to the United States -- such as the uprisings in Libya and
Syria -- are "threats to global security," Rhodes argued, and will be responded to
multilaterally and not necessarily by force. The drawdown of U.S. troops in
Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the creation of a smaller, more agile U.S.
military spread across Asia, the Pacific, and the Middle East, are also part of
the doctrine. So is the discreet backing of protesters in Egypt, Iran, and
The emerging strategy -- which Rhodes touted as "a far
more focused approach to our adversaries" -- is a welcome shift from the martial
policies and bellicose rhetoric of both the Bush administration and today's
Republican presidential candidates. But Obama has granted the CIA far too much leeway in carrying out
drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. In both countries, the strikes often
appear to be backfiring.
Obama and other administration officials insist the
drones are used rarely and kill few civilians. In a rare public comment on the
program, the president defended the strikes in late January. "I want to make
sure the people understand, actually, drones have not caused a huge number of
civilian casualties," Obama said. "For the most part, they have been very
precise precision strikes against al Qaeda and their affiliates. And we are
very careful in terms of how it's been applied."
But from Pakistan to Yemen to
post-American Iraq, drones often spark deep resentment where they operate. When
they do attack, they kill as brutally as any weapon of war. The administration's practice of classifying the strikes as
secret only exacerbates local anger and suspicion. Under Obama, drone strikes
have become too frequent, too unilateral, and too much associated with the
heavy-handed use of American power.
In 2008, I saw this firsthand. Two Afghan colleagues
and I were kidnapped by the Taliban and held captive in the tribal areas of
Pakistan for seven months. From the ground, drones are terrifying weapons that
can be heard circling overhead for hours at a time. They are a potent,
unnerving symbol of unchecked American power. At the same time, they were
clearly effective, killing foreign bomb-makers and preventing Taliban fighters
from gathering in large groups. The experience left me convinced that drone
strikes should be carried out -- but very selectively.
In the January interview, Obama
insisted drone strikes were used only surgically. "It
is important for everybody to understand," he said, "that this thing is kept on
a very tight leash."
Drones, though, are in no way surgical.
IN INTERVIEWS, CURRENT AND FORMER Obama administration officials
told me the president and his senior aides had been eager from the outset to
differentiate their approach in Pakistan and Afghanistan from Bush's. Unlike in
Iraq, where Democrats thought the Bush administration had been too aggressive,
they thought the Bush White House had not been assertive enough with Afghan and Pakistani leaders. So the new
administration adopted a unilateral, get-tough approach in South Asia that
would eventually spread elsewhere. As candidate Obama vowed in a 2007 speech,
referring to Pakistan's president at the time, "If we have actionable
intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't
act, we will."
In his first year in office,
Obama approved two large troop surges in Afghanistan and a vast expansion of the
number of CIA operatives in
Pakistan. The CIA was also given
more leeway in carrying out drone strikes in the country's ungoverned tribal
areas, where foreign and local militants plot attacks for Afghanistan,
Pakistan, and beyond.
The decision reflected both
Obama's belief in the need to move aggressively in Pakistan and the influence
of the CIA in the new
administration. To a far greater extent than the Bush White House, Obama and
his top aides relied on the CIA for its analysis of Pakistan, according to current and former senior
administration officials. As a result, preserving the agency's ability to carry
out counterterrorism, or "CT,"
operations in Pakistan became of paramount importance.
"The most important thing when it
came to Pakistan was to be able to carry out drone strikes and nothing else,"
said a former official who spoke on condition of
anonymity. "The so-called strategic focus of the bilateral relationship was
there solely to serve the CT approach."
Initially, the CIA was right. Increased drone strikes
in the tribal areas eliminated senior al Qaeda operatives in 2009. Then, in July 2010, Pakistanis working for the CIA pulled up behind a white Suzuki navigating the bustling streets of Peshawar.
The car's driver was later tracked to a large compound in the city of
Abbottabad. On May 2, 2011, U.S. commandos killed Osama bin Laden there.
The U.S. intelligence presence,
though, extended far beyond the hunt for bin Laden, according to former
administration officials. At one point, the CIA tried to deploy hundreds of operatives across Pakistan but backed off after
suspicious Pakistani officials declined to issue them visas. At
the same time, the agency aggressively used the freer hand Obama had given it
to launch more drone strikes than ever before.
Established by the Bush
administration and Musharraf in 2004, the covert CIA drone program initially carried out only "personality"
strikes against a preapproved list of senior al
Qaeda members. Pakistani officials were notified before many, but not all,
attacks. Between 2004 and 2007, nine such attacks were carried out in Pakistan,
according to the New America Foundation.
In 2008, the Bush administration
authorized less-restrictive "signature" strikes in the tribal areas. Instead of
basing attacks on intelligence regarding a specific person, CIA drone operators could carry out
strikes based on the behavior of people on the ground. Operators could launch a
drone strike if they saw a group, for example, crossing back and forth over the
Afghanistan-Pakistan border. In 2008, the Bush administration carried out 33
Under Obama, the drone campaign
has escalated rapidly. The number of strikes nearly doubled to 53 in 2009 and
then doubled again to 118 in 2010. Former administration officials said the
looser rules resulted in the killing of more civilians. Current administration
officials insisted that Obama, in fact, tightened the rules on the use of drone
strikes after taking office. They said strikes rose under Obama because
improved technology and intelligence gathering created more opportunities for attacks
than existed under Bush.
But as Pakistani public anger
over the spiraling strikes grew, other diplomats expressed concern as well. The
U.S. ambassador in Pakistan at the time, Anne Patterson, opposed several
attacks, but the CIA ignored her objections. When Cameron Munter replaced Patterson in October 2010,
he objected even more vigorously. On at least two occasions, CIA Director Leon Panetta dismissed
Munter's protests and launched strikes, the
Wall Street Journal later reported. One strike occurred only
hours after Sen. John Kerry, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,
had completed a visit to Islamabad.
A March 2011 strike brought the
debate to the White House. A day after Pakistani officials agreed to release CIA contractor Raymond Davis, the
agency -- again over Munter's objections -- carried out a signature drone strike that
the Pakistanis say killed four Taliban fighters and 38 civilians. Already angry
about the Davis case, Pakistan's Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, issued
an unusual public statement, saying a group of tribal elders had been "carelessly
and callously targeted with complete disregard to human life." U.S.
intelligence officials dismissed the Pakistani complaints and insisted 20
militants had perished. "There's every indication that this was a group of
terrorists, not a charity car wash in the Pakistani hinterlands," one official
told the Associated Press.
Surprised by the vehemence of the
reaction, national security advisor Tom Donilon questioned whether signature strikes were worthwhile. Critics inside and outside the U.S.
government contended that a program that began as a carefully focused effort to
kill senior al Qaeda leaders had morphed into a bombing campaign against
low-level Taliban fighters. Some outside analysts even argued that the
administration had adopted a de facto "kill not capture" policy, given its
inability to close Bush's Guantánamo Bay prison and create a new detention
In April 2011, the director of Pakistan's intelligence
service, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, visited Washington in an effort to repair
the relationship, according to news accounts and former administration
officials. Just after his visit, two more drone strikes occurred in the tribal
areas, which Pasha took as a personal affront. In a rare concession, Panetta
agreed to notify Pakistan's intelligence service before the United States
carried out any strike that could kill more than 20 people.
In May, after the bin Laden raid sparked further anger
among Pakistani officials, Donilon launched an internal review of how drone
strikes were approved, according to a former administration official. But the
strikes continued. At the end of May, State Department officials were angered
when three missile strikes followed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit
As Donilon's review progressed, an intense debate
erupted inside the administration over the signature strikes, according to the Journal. Adm. Mike Mullen,
then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the strikes should be more
selective. Robert Gates, then the defense secretary, warned that angry
Pakistani officials could cut off supplies to U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Clinton warned that too many civilian casualties could strengthen opposition to
Pakistan's weak, pro-American president, Asif Ali Zardari.
The CIA countered that Taliban fighters were legitimate targets because they carried
out cross-border attacks on U.S. forces, according to the former official. In
June, Obama sided with the CIA.
Panetta conceded that no drone strike would be carried out when Pakistani
officials visited Washington and that Clinton and Munter could object to
proposed strikes. But Obama allowed the CIA director to retain final say.
Last November, the worst-case
scenario that Mullen, Gates, and Clinton had warned of came to pass. After NATO airstrikes mistakenly killed 24
Pakistani soldiers on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, Kayani demanded an end
to all U.S. drone strikes and blocked supplies to U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
At the same time, popular opposition to Zardari soared. After a nearly
two-month lull that allowed militants to regroup, drone strikes resumed in the
tribal areas this past January. But signature strikes are no longer allowed -- for
the time being, according to the former senior official.
Among average Pakistanis, the
strikes played out disastrously. In a 2011 Pew Research Center poll, 97 percent
of Pakistani respondents who knew about the attacks said American drone strikes
were a "bad thing." Seventy-three percent of Pakistanis had an unfavorable view
of the United States, a 10 percentage point rise from 2008. Administration
officials say the strikes are popular with Pakistanis who live in the tribal
areas and have tired of brutal jihadi rule. And they contend that Pakistani
government officials -- while publicly criticizing the attacks -- agree in private
that they help combat militancy. Making the strikes more transparent could
reduce public anger in other parts of Pakistan, U.S. officials concede. But they
say some elements of the Pakistani government continue to request that the
strikes remain covert.
For me, the bottom line is that
both governments' approaches are failing. Pakistan's economy is dismal. Its
military continues to shelter Taliban fighters it sees as proxies to thwart
Indian encroachment in Afghanistan. And the percentage of Pakistanis supporting
the use of the Pakistani Army to fight extremists in the tribal areas -- the key
to eradicating militancy -- dropped from a 53 percent majority in 2009 to 37
percent last year. Pakistan is more unstable today than it was when Obama took
A similar dynamic is creating
even worse results on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Long ignored
by the United States, Yemen drew sudden attention after a suicide attack on the
USS Cole killed 17 American sailors in the port
of Aden in 2000. In 2002, the Bush administration carried out a single drone
strike in Yemen that killed Abu Ali al-Harithi, an al Qaeda operative who was a
key figure in orchestrating the Cole attack. In the years that followed, the
administration shifted its attentions to Iraq, and militants began to regroup.
A failed December 2009 attempt by
a militant trained in
Yemen to detonate a bomb on a Detroit-bound airliner focused Obama's attention
on the country. Over the next two years, the United States carried out an
estimated 20 airstrikes in Yemen, most in 2011. In addition to
killing al Qaeda-linked militants, the strikes killed dozens of civilians,
according to Yemenis. Instead of decimating the organization, the Obama strikes
have increased the ranks of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula from 300 fighters
in 2009 to more than 1,000 today, according to Gregory Johnsen, a leading Yemen
expert at Princeton University. In January, the group briefly seized control of
Radda, a town only 100 miles from the capital, Sanaa. "I don't believe that the
U.S. has a Yemen policy," Johnsen told me. "What the U.S. has is a
counterterrorism strategy that it applies to Yemen."
The deaths of bin Laden and many
of his lieutenants are a step forward, but Pakistan and Yemen are increasingly
unstable. Pakistan is a nuclear-armed country of 180 million with resilient
militant networks; Yemen, an impoverished, failing state that is fast becoming
a new al Qaeda stronghold. "They think they've won because of this approach,"
the former administration official said, referring to the administration's
drone-heavy strategy. "A lot of us think there is going to be a lot bigger
problems in the future."
THE BACKLASH FROM drone strikes in the countries where they are happening is not
the only worry. In the United States, civil liberties and human rights groups
are increasingly concerned with the breadth of powers Obama has claimed for the
executive branch as he wages a new kind of war.
In the Libya conflict, the
administration invoked the drones to create a new legal precedent. Under the
War Powers Resolution, the president must receive congressional authorization
for military operations within 60 days. When the deadline approached in May,
the administration announced that because NATO strikes and drones were carrying out the bulk of the missions, no serious
threat of U.S. casualties existed and no congressional authorization was
needed. "It's changed the way politicians talk about what should be the most
important thing that a nation engages in," said Peter W. Singer, a Brookings
Institution researcher. "It's changed the way we in the public deliberate war."
Last fall, a series of drone
strikes in Yemen set another dangerous precedent, according to civil liberties
and human rights groups. Without any public legal proceeding, the U.S.
government executed three of its own citizens. On Sept. 30, a drone strike
killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a charismatic American-born cleric of Yemeni descent
credited with inspiring terrorist attacks around the world. Samir Khan, a
Pakistani-American jihadist traveling with him, was killed as well. Several
weeks later, another strike killed Awlaki's 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, also a U.S. citizen. Administration officials insisted a Justice
Department review had authorized the killings but declined to release the full
"The administration has claimed
the power to carry out extrajudicial executions of Americans on the basis of
evidence that is secret and is never seen by anyone," said Jameel Jaffer,
deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It's hard to
understand how that is consistent with the Constitution."
After criticizing the Bush
administration for keeping the details of its surveillance, interrogation, and
detention practices secret, Obama is doing the same thing. His administration
has declined to reveal the details of how it places people on kill lists,
carries out eavesdropping in the United States, or decides whom to detain
overseas. The administration is also prosecuting six former government
officials on charges of leaking classified information to the media -- more cases
than all other administrations combined.
Administration officials deny
being secretive and insist they have disclosed more information about their
counterterrorism practices than the Bush administration, which fiercely
resisted releasing details of its "war on terror" and established the covert
drone program in Pakistan. Obama administration officials say they have
established a more transparent and flexible approach outside Pakistan that
involves military raids, drone strikes, and other efforts. They told me that
every attack in Yemen was approved by Yemeni officials. Eventually, they hope
to make drone strikes joint efforts carried out openly with local governments.
For now, keeping them covert prevents American courts
from reviewing their constitutionality, according to Jaffer. He pointed out
that if a Republican president followed such policies, the outcry on the left
would be deafening. "You have to remember that this authority is going to be
used by the next administration and the next administration after that," Jaffer
said. "You need to make sure there are clear limits on what is really
TO THEIR CREDIT, Obama and his senior officials have successfully reframed Bush's
global battle as a more narrowly focused struggle against al Qaeda. They
stopped using the term "war on terror" and instead described a campaign against
a single, clearly identifiable group.
Senior administration officials
cite the toppling of Muammar al-Qaddafi as the prime example of the success of
their more focused, multilateral approach to the use of force. At a cost of
zero American lives and $1 billion in U.S. funding, the Libya intervention
removed an autocrat from power in five months. The occupation of Iraq claimed
4,484 American lives, cost at least $700 billion, and lasted nearly nine years.
"The light U.S. footprint had
benefits beyond less U.S. lives and resources," Rhodes told me. "We believe the
Libyan revolution is viewed as more legitimate. The U.S. is more welcome. And
there is less potential for an insurgency because there aren't foreign forces
In its most ambitious proposal,
the administration is also trying to restructure the U.S. military, implement
steep spending cuts, and "right-size" U.S. forces around the world. Under
Obama's plan, the Army would be trimmed by 80,000 soldiers, some U.S. units
would be shifted from the Middle East to the Pacific, and more small, covert
bases would be opened. Special Forces units that have been vastly expanded in
Iraq and Afghanistan would train indigenous forces and carry out
counterterrorism raids. Declaring al Qaeda nearly defeated, administration
officials say it is time for a new focus.
"Where does the U.S. have a
greater interest in 2020?" Rhodes asked. "Is it Asia-Pacific or Yemen?
Obviously, the Asia-Pacific region is clearly going to be more important."
Rhodes has a point, but Pakistan
and its nuclear weapons -- as well as Yemen and its proximity to vital oil
reserves and sea lanes -- are likely to haunt the United States for years.
Retired military officials warn
that drones and commando raids are no substitute for the difficult process of
helping local leaders marginalize militants. Missile strikes that kill members
of al Qaeda and its affiliates in Pakistan and Yemen do not strengthen
economies, curb corruption, or improve government services. David Barno, a
retired lieutenant general who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 2003
to 2005, believes hunting down senior terrorists over and over again is not a
"How do you get beyond this
attrition warfare?" he asked me. "I don't think we've answered that question
Ethan Miller/Getty Images; Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images