Is Obama's drone doctrine counter-productive?

US President Barack Obama discusses the mission to kill Osama Bin Laden with his national security adviser Tom Donilon at the White House 1 May 2011 White House officials say President Obama takes the final decision for every drone strike himself

US President Barack Obama personally approves every single drone strike against suspected terrorists, so he can take full moral responsibility for the deaths these cause.

That is the main thrust of a long, detailed and fascinating piece in the New York Times.

It comes as experts have been telling me that the president is wrong to see drones as a "silver bullet" that solves some critical problems about the morality and efficacy of America's use of military power.

The New York Times paints a picture of a regular, 100-strong video conference meeting that decides the names to be put on a "kill list": the next suspected terrorists to be targeted.

It quotes the president's national security adviser, Tom Donilon: "He is determined that he will make these decisions about how far and wide these operations will go… he's determined to keep the tether pretty short."

White House spokesman Jay Carney says he will not discuss specific details of decision-making.

The article confirms that the care taken by the president is significant and he takes "extraordinary measures" to avoid civilian casualties.

Obama's drone doctrine

In reality, I cannot believe that as many officials spoke as freely as they apparently did without being given the presidential green light.

At a time when Republicans want to paint Mr Obama as a ditherer, unwilling to take firm action, it paints him as tough and strong, willing to take hard decisions and kill America's enemies.

But this goes beyond political spin. It is a doctrine of warfare.

We have known for a while that drones are the president's weapon of choice.

He believes that they kill America's enemies with minimum risk to the innocent and are a "light foot-print" compared to the heavy boot of invasion and occupation. The Obama administration is becoming more and more frank about the useof these unmanned planes.

Some are appalled.

There are plenty of blogs which say that drone attacks are murder, plain and simple. Others argue that they are illegal under international law.

But some say they simply do not have the desired result. Gregory Johnsen of Princeton University is an expert on Yemen and he told me that the rain of drone attacks has strengthened the hand of terrorists there.

"Look at Yemen on Christmas Day 2009, the day the so-called underwear bomber attempted to bring down a flight over Detroit.

"On that day al-Qaeda numbered about 200 to 300 individuals and they controlled no territory. Now today, two-and-a-half years later, despite all the drone strikes al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has tripled in size, it's now around 1,000 members and it controls significant territory.

"The more the US bombs, the more they grow."

No 'silver bullet'

He says drones strikes have killed women and children and al-Qaeda are adept at using this to recruit people for revenge.

Someone else who questions the light foot-print theory is David Rhode. He speaks form very personal experience. While a New York Times reporter, he was held hostage in the tribal areas of Pakistan by the Taliban. He recalled to me one attack.

"There was one drone strike close to the house where we were being held. It was so close that shrapnel and mud showered down into the courtyard.

"Just the force and size of the explosion amazed me. It comes with no warning and tremendous force."

He says that is not a light foot-print.

"They are a constant presence, you hear them circling over head the whole time.

"It's terrifying for everyone on the ground because they can hear it, like a small plane. What is so unsettling is you have no idea when this missile is going to come and kill you. There's a sense that your sovereignty is being violated.

"… It's a serious military action. It is not this light precise pin prick that many Americans believe."

Gregory Johnson says politicians can become mesmerised by this one tactic.

"The problem with drones is there is almost a seduction of simple solutions going on here. It is like a 'silver bullet', a magic missile solution to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and I think that's very dangerous.

"What needs to happen is that the US has to do the very hard policy of diplomacy, or intelligence on the ground. The United States has a huge tool box at its disposal in Yemen and it is only using one of these tools."

I suspect the sci-fi allure of bringing retribution from the skies, with no risk to any American lives, will out-weigh such considerations.

The president may think very carefully before he approves individual killings, but in the end, as a strategy, drone attacks have too many attractions compared to doing nothing or sending in the troops.

Mark Mardell Article written by Mark Mardell Mark Mardell Presenter, The World This Weekend

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  • Comment number 9.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    A recent Doonesbury cartoon showed a US agent ordering a drone strike, which immediately destroyed the nearby target. The Afghan said in awe, "How come you guys are losing?"

    Given the incredible technological superiority of the USA, it is truly strange that the Taliban are - quite frankly - winning.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    “...Obama personally approves every single drone strike against suspected terrorists, so he can take full moral responsibility for the deaths these cause.”

    Whatever happened to all the hype about not sacrificing our values for expediency? I suppose it’s easier to just kill ‘suspected’ terrorists than be troubled by the possible embarrassment of detaining them somewhere like GITMO.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Using drones to decimate al-Qaeda members is proving to be an effective method. One should be relentless when going after terrorists like the Taliban, al Qaeda. Reducing their numbers, making them a spent force will eventually force them out of action! Drones are the most effective weapon at the US's disposal. Never hand the tactical advantage to the unscrupulous enemy. It is a war of attrition.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    In the best of all possible worlds, there would be no need for drone strikes, or other black ops, at all. The US relationship with the oil producers of the mid East would be no more complicated than its relations with Canada.

    But there are 'root causes' for the friction, and these causes are intractable. One can see why drones might appeal to a leader seeking the least worst course of action.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Being a Vietnamese I have and understand the hatred feeling when the US soldiers present on my country soil. I think that feeling applies to civilians of any country and can easily be used against America and American soldiers.

    I do not fully support drone attack, but compare to putting troops on the ground or bombs dropping from big airplanes, it's the better evil.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Once the rationale is applied, it becomes too convenient to do it again, to the neglect of other tactics. The odds of mistakes grow with repetition, and the number of casualties show how drone strikes are getting sloppy in both execution and deliberation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    There is nothing in this article which suggest that the drones are not effective, on the contrary even Al-qaeda members are fearful of it's effectiveness. I think Obama deserves some credit here.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I do think that the drones are doing a good job killing off so many the senior al-Qaeda members . I just wonder how bad things could be if the US didn't use drones how many NATO troops would be killed by a even stronger Taliban and al-Qaeda . What ever the US and there allies do will be unpopular with some parts of the country it is war after all.


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