Breaking the Horrifying US Drone Habit

#9 in series of policy briefs laying out clear steps to re-think and re-orient US foreign policy.

By Dan Mahanty and Allegra Harpootlian

Key Takeaway: Have a real national conversation about remote targeted killing and end the unlawful, secret, and unaccountable use of lethal force.  

Our lives are made up of habits and routines. Some are boring, but necessary, like unloading the dishwasher or flossing. Some keep us going, like that monthly book club or Taco Tuesday. Others hold us back. In the aftermath of 9/11, the US government developed a lot of bad habits, but few as damaging – and hard to break –  as its addiction to the use of lethal force to solve problems. With a new administration in power and the twenty year mark of our wars just around the corner, policymakers have another chance to break one of America’s worst foreign policy habits.

Calls have been growing for an “end to our endless wars.” But policy inertia is real, and it is still easier for those in power to preserve the existing policy of “kinetic” solutions to “terrorist” problems than to imagine a new way of thinking about security. As a result, lawmakers’ plans for ending the wars rarely include ending the practice of using drone strikes to kill terrorism suspects.

Beginning under President George W. Bush, accelerated and widely expanded under President Obama, and then left unchecked with looser rules of engagement  under President Trump, the use of so-called “targeted killing” against people the government suspects of association with terrorism has become policymakers’ favorite tool. Politicians on both sides of the aisle repeatedly characterize the use of armed drones, and the civilians killed, maimed, and terrorized by them, as a “necessary evil,” because as President Obama said, “to do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties – not just in our cities at home and facilities abroad, but also in the very places –like Sana’a and Kabul and Mogadishu – where terrorists seek a foothold.” They see drone strikes as the low-risk, high-reward way for America to show resolve in the midst of threats real and imaginary, while calming public apprehensions about “boots on the ground.” 

As the habit of targeted killing has taken hold, policymakers have worked to conceal their dependence on it. They cloak the deadly policy in political language, obscuring its true character and garnishing it with legalistic euphemisms to evade scrutiny under international law. All to conceal the true depth of American involvement in wars that have been neither debated by the American public nor approved by Congress.

That America has clung to this bad habit makes sense from a psychological standpoint. According to Psychology Today, “one likely reason people are creatures of habit is that habits are efficient: People can perform useful behaviors without wasting time and energy deliberating about what to do.” Now that Congress has once again begun to expend energy deliberating about US security policy for the first time in a generation, however, it is vital that it addresses drone warfare. Now is the perfect time to break the destructive habit of keeping secrets, evading responsibility, and killing without accountability. 

Bad habits are broken when they become difficult to get away with. To end our wars, Congress needs to stay informed and ask much harder questions, much more often. At core, three questions need to be answered: Who is the US fighting? Is “targeted killing” really necessary? And finally, what are the true costs and who pays them?

Who is the US fighting?  Too few members of Congress have asked serious questions about the correlation between the groups or individuals targeted by US drones and a threat to American lives or even a significant relationship to American interests.

Think of America’s wars like an octopus constantly growing more tentacles. What started as “limited” strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq now extend to Somalia, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, leaving a path of death and destruction in its wake. The US government defends killing people around the world by claiming an association between the local groups it targets and larger global “terrorist” syndicates, providing generic warnings about threats to the “homeland” and alluding to secret information that is unavailable to the public to support their claims. The source of the threat, and whether it derives from the American presence locally, its role globally, or some other reason, is never made clear. Nor is the nature or strength of the relationship between the targeted individual and any group against which the US government actually has Congressional authorization to use military force. 

In the absence of a more critical public appraisal of the threat, the number of groups targeted by US strikes (described at times as “affiliates of associated forces of Al Qaeda”) grows exponentially. In some places, local armed groups who claim association with global groups such as ISIS may, in fact, present a real and persistent threat to civilians or the local government, and may use abhorrent violence to achieve their aims. But the decision to use military force against any group, and the purpose for doing so, is one that deserves a full and public debate in Congress. We can’t continue with the current situation, in which the public has to take it on faith that there is any connection between the architects of 9/11 and an armed group in West Africa the US launched drone strikes against 20 years later.

Is targeted killing necessary? A US Army War College study from 2013 concluded that “Drones are a politically and militarily attractive way to counter insurgents and terrorists, but, paradoxically, this may lead to their use in situations where they are less likely to be effective and where it is  difficult to predict consequences.” And yet, the US military constantly and consistently tell Congress that drone strikes and other lethal force are needed to “defeat terrorism” and our leaders believe them. 

Somalia provides a case in point. Recently, a Defense Department watchdog found that “Despite many years of sustained Somali, US and international counterterrorism pressure, the terrorist threat in East Africa is not degraded.”  But policymakers still hold that the drone program has been effective in Somalia and contends that stopping the program would be disastrous for America. Neither assertion has been properly substantiated and defended with evidence by the government nor has the purpose of America’s war in Somalia been debated in Congress, even as reports of civilian casualties mounted without any accountability. As targeted killing has become more habitual, efforts to justify the policy on grounds of military necessity have fallen away. If Congress can challenge those claims of military necessity today, it will discover what has been true from the start: targeted killing is not only unnecessary, but counterproductive to counterterrorism goals.  

Which brings up the final question Congress should be asking of each and every remote targeted killing operation: What is the true human cost of drone warfare? As countless experts and whistleblowers have pointed out, these several hundred pound bombs are much less precise than represented and regularly kill innocent men, women and children, whose only crime is living in a village being bombed by the US. Study after study shows that Americans don’t support airstrikes that kill civilians, even when the strike kills a so-called “terrorist.” To overcome such inconvenient moral qualms, targeted killing advocates have developed an elaborate language of obfuscation about the consequences of drone strikes. But “precision” missile strikes against “high value targets” that present a “continuing imminent threat” is just wrapping a destructive tactic in misleading and benign language to justify the bad habit, like describing cigarettes as “gluten-free.”  Thanks to human rights organizations and dogged journalists, we know many of their stories, but we also know those cases are just the tip of the iceberg. Even the US military admits that “no one will ever know” how many civilians the US killed in the fight against ISIS. Strikes are frequently conducted in secret or in partnership with other countries behind the veil of a “coalition” or “partnered” operation, making it impossible for civilians to know the source of their harm. The US doesn’t acknowledge its covert strikes conducted by the CIA  at all, which precludes any ability to acknowledge harm. Even in cases where the US takes “credit” for its operations, civilians and communities face insurmountable hurdles in reporting their experiences, and have had even less luck in receiving any formal apology or compensation. Just last year, after years of pushback from civil society, the US Africa Command created an online portal for Somalis to report instances of civilian harm. They did not, however, alert Somalis to the existence of such a website, nor did they consider that technology necessary to report is banned in al-Shabaab areas, making it impossible for civilians to make a report. Finally, no process exists for Somalis – or any other civilians – to actually file a claim requesting compensation or even non-monetary forms of acknowledgement or apology, even though Congress has authorized the military to spend $3 million for this exact purpose.

Bad habits are broken when they become difficult to get away with. To break America’s habit of raining death and destruction down across the world, our leaders need to step up. Our congressional leaders have started to reclaim their war powers, but they need to make shining a light on the significant moral, ethical, and strategic questions that remain unanswered after twenty years of war a priority. That means reading about our wars even when they’re not on the frontpage and listening to the voices of those who have been affected by them. That means releasing statements and holding hearings “seeking answers,” “condemning,” “criticizing,” and “warning” whenever new allegations do come to light — and they come to light with depressing regularity. And it means not always taking the US military and intelligence agencies at their word when they say a group should be a target; that lethal force is needed or effective; or that nobody will be harmed in the process. 


Dan Mahanty is the U.S. program director for the Center for Civilians in Conflict and member of the Truman National Security Project. 

Allegra Harpootlian is a political partner with the Truman National Security Project. She currently works at the intersection of national security, politics, and the media. 

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