Debate aside, number of US drone strikes drops sharply

President Obama embraced drone strikes in his first term, and the targeted killing of suspected terrorists has come to define his presidency.

world Updated: May 23, 2013 03:03 IST

President Obama embraced drone strikes in his first term, and the targeted killing of suspected terrorists has come to define his presidency.

But lost in the contentious debate over the legality, morality and effectiveness of a novel weapon is the fact that the number of strikes has actually been in decline. Strikes in Pakistan peaked in 2010 and have fallen sharply since then; their pace in Yemen has slowed to half of last year’s rate; and no strike has been reported in Somalia for more than a year.

In a long-awaited address on Thursday at the National Defense University, Obama will make his most ambitious attempt to date to lay out his justification for the strikes and what they have achieved. He may follow up on public promises, including one he made in his State of the Union speech in February to define a "legal architecture" for choosing targets, possibly shifting more strikes from the CIA to the military; explain how he believes that presidents should be "reined in" in their exercise of lethal power; and take steps to make a program veiled in secrecy more transparent.

Previewing the speech last weekend, an administration official speaking on the condition of anonymity said Obama would also “review our detention policy and efforts to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay; and he will frame the future of our efforts against Al Qaeda, its affiliates and adherents.” Some Obama supporters have urged him to use the occasion to announce that part of a Senate study of the C.I.A.’s former interrogation program will be declassified and made public.

Obama, who insisted early in his presidency on a personal role in many strike decisions, may also shed light on the declining use of drone strikes. Current and former officials say the reasons include a shrinking list of important Qaeda targets, a result of the success of past strikes, and transient factors ranging from bad weather to diplomatic strains. But more broadly, the decline may reflect a changing calculation of the long-term costs and benefits of targeted killings.

Obama administration officials have sometimes contrasted the drone programme’s relative precision, economy and safety for Americans with the huge costs in lives and money of the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over time, however, the costs of the drone strikes themselves have become more evident.

Reports of innocent civilians killed by drones — whether real or, as American officials often assert, exaggerated — have shaken the claims of precise targeting. The strikes have become a staple of Qaeda propaganda, cited to support the notion that the US is at war with Islam.

They have been described by convicted terrorists as a motivation for their crimes, including the failed attack on a Detroit-bound airliner in 2009 and the attempted car bombing of Times Square in 2010.

Notably, a growing list of former senior Bush and Obama administration security officials have expressed concern that the short-term gains of drone strikes in eliminating specific militants may be outweighed by long-term strategic costs. Among the cautionary voices are Michael V. Hayden, who as CIA director in 2008 oversaw the first escalation of strikes in Pakistan; Stanley A. McChrystal, the retired general who commanded American forces in Afghanistan; James E. Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Dennis C. Blair, the former director of national intelligence.“I think the strikes have been tremendously effective,” said Hayden, a retired Air Force general, who said he was speaking generally and not discussing any particular operation. “But circumstances change. We’re in a much safer place than we were before, and maybe it’s time to recalibrate.”

Hayden said that through 2008, the “first-order effect of these operations — that a dangerous man is dead” was viewed as so important that other consequences were set aside. But with a diminished terrorist threat, he said, the negative effects of the strikes deserve greater consideration.

Among them, he said, were alienating the leadership of countries where the strikes occur; losing intelligence from allies whose laws prohibit support for targeted killings; an eroding political consensus in the United States; and “creating a recruiting poster for Al Qaeda.” One of Obama’s ambitions on taking office was to forge a new, more positive American image in the Muslim world. But the drone strikes, along with the president’s failure to carry out his promise to close the Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba, have helped drive the United States’ approval rating to new lows in many Muslim countries.” NYT

First Published: May 22, 2013 23:18 IST