Limiting Drone Strikes Outside war Zones

By Grant Golub

Earlier this month, the Biden administration quietly disclosed its predecessor’s secret rules for counterterrorism operations outside established war zones. Known as “direct action,” these operations include activities like commando raids and drone strikes. While portions of the guidelines were redacted, the remainder reveals the distressing amount of discretion American military commanders wielded when choosing to launch these operations inside countries where the United States is not at war.

Although the Trump-era rules were suspended on the day of President Biden’s inauguration, they shed light on two disconcerting issues in U.S. foreign policy. The first is the Pentagon’s massive expansion of power over highly classified military operations. At a time when U.S. civil-military relations are in crisis, handing the generals even more control will lead to a further deterioration of accountability and transparency in how the United States uses lethal force abroad.

This leads to the second problem: If Biden is serious about ending endless war, then he should sharply limit or end U.S. direct action operations away from conventional battlefields. While Biden should be applauded for announcing the withdrawal of all American troops from Afghanistan by September 11, the forever wars will not cease if the focus of military activity shifts toward secret operations in countries many Americans cannot locate on a map.

When Biden was vice president, the Obama administration enacted strict procedures surrounding counterterrorism strikes in May 2013 after presiding over a precipitous increase in them in places like Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Under those protocols, top cabinet officials needed to agree during lengthy deliberations that a potential target outside a traditional warzone constituted a direct threat to Americans. The idea was to help distinguish low-level foot soldiers from their high-value commanders. There also needed to be “near certainty” that no civilians would be killed.

Those rules were meant to help prevent unnecessary deaths after critics charged the operations were causing too many civilian causalities, spurring terrorist recruitment, and undercutting support among local allies and partners in unstable regions. Military and intelligence officials fumed at the procedures, believing they undermined their ability to effectively hunt terrorists. Yet, hundreds of drone strikes were still carried out after the policy shift.

While the Obama administration rules did not end America’s reliance on clandestine drone strikes and special forces raids, they at least were an attempt to limit them. But mere weeks after former President Donald Trump took office in 2017, his administration began exploring how to evade or weaken the Obama-era restrictions. With the stroke of a pen, Trump marked large areas of Somalia and Yemen “areas of active hostilities,” meaning they could be subjected to battlefield-style norms and allow the military to increase the types of targets they suspected of terrorist activity.

Several months later, the Trump administration decided to dismantle most of the Obama limits on direct action operations. At the time, it was reported the CIA and the military could expand their lists of targets for counterterrorism missions beyond high-level insurgents to include lower-level militants and others with no special leadership positions. Proposed raids and strikes additionally no longer needed to undergo high-level vetting and review. The Biden administration’s disclosure also divulged that while the Trump rules formally preserved the near certainty requirement for civilian casualties, there was also flexibility about permitting exceptions to that and other standards, saying there could be “variations” to the procedures “where necessary.”

In other words, military and intelligence officials were given large amounts of leeway in deciding when to attack suspected terrorists outside conventional areas of war. While those in the military and the intelligence agencies are sworn to protect U.S. national security, they are still unelected government officials who do not directly answer to the American people. Allowing them to have largely unrestricted control over secret kill operations erodes civilian supervision over the armed forces and the intelligence community that is necessary to ensure there are proper constraints on the use of U.S. military power. That is a dangerous precedent that should be reversed for maintaining healthy civilian control over counterterrorism operations.

But even beyond the important issue of maintaining robust civil-military relations, the Trump-era rules show how far the United States still must travel to end the forever wars. It is one thing to formally end American involvement in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. But, if direct action operations are continued unabated with little regard for U.S. security, the U.S. will remain on a constant war footing and Americans will unnecessarily remain in harm’s way. Biden seems to be serious when he claims he wants to end America’s endless wars, but to do that, it is not enough to terminate the formal U.S. overseas troop presence on conventional battlefields. To truly end endless war, Washington will have to undergo a rethink of counterterrorism policies. Curtailing drone strikes and commando raids would be an excellent place to start.