The Stimson Drone Task Force: a roadmap

task_force_report_thumbnailThe new Stimson Centre Drone Task Force report lends weight to a number of APPG, UN expert and human rights NGO concerns about US drone strike policy. As deployment of Predators is stepped up in Iraq (for ISR, force protection and possible targeted killing) the report offers a constructive, high-level critique of current US practices. It can also be seen as a roadmap for future use: what emerges is a To Do List for the Pentagon and any allies contemplating use of armed drones as part of counterterrorism strategy – a To Do List with potential to reshape the US drone program.

Task force members include a former head of Combined Forces Command Afghanistan (Lt Gen Barno), Counsel to the President and US State Department (John Bellinger), General Counsel of the CIA (Jeffrey Smith) and Deputy Director of the CIA Counterterrorism Centre (Philip Mudd). Given the expertise of its authors, Professor Sarah Knuckey suggests that the report may signal the viability of reform in the near future.

The authors note that cooperation with allies is relevant to forming policy.This would include the UK, with its own 10 Reapers in Afghanistan, 5 of which have been obtained under a US Foreign Military Sales contract for an Urgent Operational Requirement. Those Reapers have not yet been used in Operation Herrick. It should be noted that the UK is at a critical point in deciding how to deploy Reapers post Afghanistan, if at all. No decision has been made on future basing, the UK-US Reaper Agreement is under review and scope of the proposed Joint User Group has not been determined. The well timed report may help the MOD identify key issues.

The basic premise is that drones – with their long loiter time, sophisticated sensors and extensive operational reach – enable innovative tactics and policies. In particular, drones have allowed the US to engage in cross-border targeted operations in an unprecedented and expanding way. Whilst members of the Task Force identify some tactical successes, the report recognises that UAVs (sic) are not strategic weapons and have substantial vulnerabilities. These must be addressed.

First, the report raises concerns that the Obama administration’s reliance on targeted killing as a pillar of counterterrorism strategy rests on questionable assumptions, and risks increasing instability. In-depth impact assessments on security are absent notwithstanding Sunni and Shia Islamic extremist groups growing in scope, lethality and influence across the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. Other strategic risks include the erosion of sovereignty norms where consent is questionable and allies do not regard lethal force is justifiable; revenge attacks following civilian casualties; and the slippery slope to a continual or wider conflict through apparently low-risk and low-cost missions.

APPG members note the dearth of robust research on the affect of drone strikes on radicalisation, although studies by Svedberg (2013) Pew Research (2012) and Columbia Law School/Stanford (Saif, 2014) suggest a significant increase in anti-US sentiment and disenfranchisement through civilian impact is likely to make individuals vunerable to radicalisation. Dr Wali Aslam’s first paper for the Remote Control Project focuses on relocation of militants; it is hoped further research may extend to impact in the UK. The more favourable report by Johnston and Sarbahi looks at shorter term changes. In the UK, the MOD do not appear to have contributed to this slender body of work.

Second, the report analyses how current US practice is ‘not consistent with core rule of law norms’ because of expansive interpretations of the key concepts ‘armed conflict’ and ‘imminence.’ This undermines the legitimacy of any lawful operations, and sets a worrying international precedent for other countries developing their own armed drones.  The APPG has consistently advocated for government engagement on the core principles governing using of armed drones through letters to the MOD, PQs, EDMs and a complaint to UN Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson. Chair Tom Watson’s third drones EDM goes further by asking for a statement of criteria on military intervention and clarification of the uncertain role of parliament, should Reapers be relocated from Afghanistan.

Third, the report reiterates concern about continuing lack of transparency since the administration discloses only partial information about a handful of strikes against US citizens, now including the heavily redacted memo justifying the Al Awaki strike. In general, the identities of those targeted and the basis for their targeting are neither confirmed nor denied: it is inevitable that democratic accountability for the ‘covert multi-year killing program’ (as report describes it) is thwarted.

And so, the pressing To Do List heads that emerge are:

  1. Undertake a strategic review on the role of drones in targeted counterterrorism strikes. This would include in-depth impact assessments on security as well as assessments on affected communities at home and abroad, public opinion and cooperation with allies;
  2. Strategically analyse the review along side non-kinetic means of combating terrorism;
  3. Engage with legal critique of drone strikes with a view to dialogue and agreement on application of existing core principals of international law;
  4. Increase transparency starting with public acknowledgment of strikes, robust casualty counting and resulting disclosure; and
  5. Seek full democratic accountability and oversight mechanisms rather than limited, ex post facto notification.

Jeff Smith and John Bellinger’s article on the report, ‘Mr President We Need Rules for Drones’ is here.

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