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It’s time to rethink US drone policy

A new report outlines a path forward for moving away from focusing US national security policy on counterterrorism.

When the United States launched a lethal drone strike in Yemen in 2002 against individuals suspected of terrorism, it operationalized the development and sustainment of an exceptional program for using lethal force against perceived threats outside widely recognized war zones. Nearly 20 years later, that exception is at risk of becoming the rule, in which the United States assumes broad authorities to lethally target terrorism suspects around the world in secret with limited oversight and even more limited accountability. The Biden administration has an opportunity to shift course, to change the U.S. approach so that it centers human rights and commitments to the rule of law, and to lead in setting a responsible international standard for the use of force abroad.

The U.S. drone program has posed significant legal and strategic questions relating to U.S. drone use outside war zones, the ways in which U.S. drone use has led to civilian harm, the unique challenges posed by global drone proliferation, the difficulties in regulating emergent technologies, and the damaging effects of secrecy on democracy, accountability, and the rule of law. Earlier this month, the Biden administration released the redacted policy of the Trump administration concerning use of lethal force abroad. This document demonstrates the evolution in use of lethal force as a response to devastating attacks on the United States to an open-ended and unaccountable justification for engagements around the world.

In a recent report we authored, “A New Agenda for US Drone Policy and the Use of Lethal Force,” we examine this evolution and the problematic international precedent set over the last 20 years. We document the current status of the U.S. drone program — reflecting on the legal and policy frameworks used by the last three presidential administrations to conduct lethal airstrikes outside of widely recognized war zones. Although such strikes have long been a central component of the U.S. approach to counterterrorism abroad, it’s necessary to look beyond the unique attributes of the technology itself and reflect on the ways in which the U.S. drone program illustrates the larger assumptions, policies, and actions that have guided decisions to use lethal force in counterterrorism operations around the world for nearly 20 years.

While drone strikes represent a tactical choice in responding to suspected threats, their use has blurred the lines between tactical and strategic decision making. What remains is an inarticulate policy that advances wars that have defined a generation.

There are several actions that the Biden administration can take now to alter course. The administration should start with a comprehensive strategic analysis and review of the U.S. drone program and use of lethal force against people suspected of terrorism — and publish the findings of the study publicly. To our knowledge, the White House has yet to conduct such a review and evaluate the impact of past strikes not only on terrorist networks, but on national security policy, cooperation with partners and allies, public opinion, and, crucially, affected communities. Such a public accounting of U.S. activities is important in order to ascertain the efficacy, legitimacy, and consequences of the U.S. approach. The review should include both an assessment of global drone posture in order to identify elements of the underlying infrastructure that can influence operational decisions and a comparative analysis of alternative tools to address the challenges posed by terrorist threats to the United States.

Additionally, the administration could establish the infrastructure and dedicate resources for addressing civilian casualties by refining the government’s response to external reports of civilian casualties, including improving military thoroughness and transparency within its own investigations and using credible information from non-government sources. Currently, the U.S. government maintains self-imposed limitations on investigations of civilian casualties and has yet to take concrete steps to respond to incidents of civilian harm after acknowledging a mistake. In setting up the infrastructure for addressing the significant civilian harm wrought by U.S. lethal airstrikes, the Biden administration would help institutionalize accountability and bring more intention to the ways in which the United States responds to mistakes.

Moreover, the administration could work with Congress to repeal both the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for Use of Military Force. Both AUMFs have been used to rationalize the expansive use of lethal force beyond their original remit. Indeed, many of the groups the United States has taken action against over the last 20 years did not exist when the AUMFs were passed. Furthermore, the operational entanglements in many countries where the United States conducts lethal counterterrorism operations have evolved in recent years, begging the question as to whether the current U.S. approach aligns with — or perhaps exacerbates — realities on the ground. In working to repeal the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs, it will be important for the Biden administration to ensure that any potentially new AUMF contains vital safeguards to constrain the use of force temporally, geographically, and strategically in terms of specifying the mission and targets.

In our report, we offer several additional practical recommendations that range from measures to clarify the legal and policy frameworks guiding the use of lethal force to efforts to increase transparency of U.S. decisions and the results of U.S. operations, actions to improve accountability and prioritize civilian protection, means to develop robust and responsible global standards for the transfer and use of lethal drone technology, and efforts to appropriately account for the potential implications of certain technological developments and innovation.

Ultimately, the Biden administration should develop a strategy that appropriately situates counterterrorism among other pressing security priorities and is relevant to the world today. As events over the last year made all too clear, it is crucial that the United States reorient its national security policy away from a primacy on counterterrorism and towards more pressing threats and global security challenges.

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