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.