Readers and listeners to President Obama’s speech today at the National Defense University, billed as a major address on terrorism policy, could be forgiven for thinking the speech just a re-hash of old policies. Believe me, Obama seemed to repeat, I really, really want to close Guantanamo Bay. It’s true, he stressed, I really want to capture, interrogate, and prosecute al-Qaeda leaders — despite his record of only one al-Qaeda leader captured abroad in five years and the example of the killing, rather than detention and interrogation of Osama bin Laden. President Obama has made these same claims before. Even his promise to restart the transfer of Yemenis from Guantanamo to their home country does little to change the basic architecture of the policies that he inherited from President George W. Bush.
But the one area where President Obama did signal a shift in policy that could have dramatic effects on U.S. national security is on the criteria for using drones. Following the news that his administration has killed four U.S. citizens in its time in office with drones, the president suggested that he will tighten the rules for using unmanned aerial strikes. Now, the U.S. will only use drone strikes against terrorists who “pose a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons,” where there is a “near certainty” that the target is present, and there is a “near certainty” that civilians “will not be injured or killed.”
The president risks rendering impossible the only element of his counterterrorism strategy that has bred success. An obvious problem is that there is almost never a “near certainty” that a target is the person we think he is and that he is located where we think. President Obama either is imposing far too strict a level of proof on our military and intelligence officers or the standards will be rarely followed. But worse, if the U.S. publicly announces that it will not attack terrorists if civilian casualties will result, terrorists will always meet and travel in entourages of innocent family members and others — a tactic adopted by potential targets of Israeli targeted killings in the West Bank. Neither of these standards — near certainty of the identity of the target or of zero civilian casualties — applies to wartime operations. President Obama is placing impossible conditions on the use of force for what can only be assumed to be ideological reasons.
But broader than even these problems is the pullout from Afghanistan that will accompany these changes in drone policy. Drones are only as good as the intelligence that directs them. If the U.S. lacks reliable information on the identity and location of terrorists, drone missions will become an exercise of shooting in the dark. Drones themselves don’t gather the intelligence — it comes from having boots on the ground in Afghanistan and, once upon a time, in Iraq. Human sources and networks provide the most reliable information for not just drones, but also our special-operations teams, to target the enemy. Without on-the-ground intelligence networks, our strikes will rely on second-hand reports, unreliable partners, and satellite and electronic surveillance, which provides less clarity against a decentralized network. By pulling out of Afghanistan prematurely, we may leave our drones flying blind, especially under the unrealistic standards announced today.