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What happens now to U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan?

The lack of accountability for civilian casualties in drone strikes isn’t likely to change

- September 21, 2021

President Biden promised retribution for U.S. deaths after the Islamic State in the Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) attacked the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Aug. 26, killing 13 U.S. military personnel and dozens of Afghan citizens.

On Aug. 29, U.S. Central Command conducted a drone strike in Kabul that reportedly killed ISIS-K terrorists. Within days, the New York Times reported that the strike killed an Afghan citizen who worked for an aid group affiliated with the United States, as well as members of his family. On Thursday, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, who heads Central Command, cited this investigation, calling the strike a “tragic mistake” that inadvertently killed 10 civilians, including children.

Since 9/11, U.S. presidents have adopted drone warfare as a central feature of America’s foreign policy. In 2016, President Barack Obama conceded America was getting complacent with drones and discounting the risks.

Here’s what you need to know about the politics of drone warfare and what they might mean for U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan.

Drones may lead the military to take risks

Some scholars contend that governments have a moral obligation to use drones because they minimize physical risk to military personnel. Advocates also argue that drones minimize civilian casualties, although evidence suggests that counterterrorism strikes have killed thousands of civilians.

The force protection dividend of drones — that they avoid military casualties — leads to a “moral hazard” dynamic. This means individuals take greater risks because they avoid the burden of the costs of these risks.

The emergence of drones appears to have introduced a moral hazard for policymakers. Because they are unmanned, drones do not subject the lives of pilots and soldiers to great physical risk. Nor do they risk the same domestic political costs that come from these individuals returning home in body bags.

Some scholars have referred to this phenomenon as “ethical slippage” — when their own people are not at risk, militaries are potentially more willing to make decisions under greater uncertainty. Ultimately, these scenarios can impose a “spectrum of impunity” in which civilians are exposed to greater dangers, while technologically superior combatants face fewer risks.

Indeed, McKenzie defended the strike by arguing U.S. forces “did not have the luxury to develop [a] pattern of life” on the suspected terrorist. In the context of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, with the country under Taliban control and intelligence limited, the perceived need to protect U.S. personnel seemed paramount at the time. The implications are especially troubling when considering the use of strikes in densely populated urban terrain, which some analysts argue will become more prevalent.

Iran and Turkey have become drone powers

Proving that drones lower the threshold for conflict is not possible. But the intuition of moral hazard is supported by circumstantial and anecdotal evidence. During the peak years of strikes, U.S. officials declared a preference for capturing terrorists over killing them. Yet, between 2011 and 2013, U.S. forces attempted to capture high-profile terrorists just three times. Instead, the U.S. military conducted 200 drone strikes that killed an estimated 1,000 people, including 86 civilians.

The lack of accountability for civilian casualties isn’t likely to change

Do elected officials or the U.S. public expect accountability for foreign civilian casualties?

Many analysts anticipate that Americans will be dismayed by these casualties. But research also suggests that Americans are more concerned with the consequences of strikes when Americans are directly affected. What makes drones so appealing to policymakers as a military tool is that they fly under the radar of public opinion, which insulates U.S. officials from criticism.

A recent study conducted by our colleagues suggests that American support for the use of force abroad is mediated by the number of U.S. military casualties. These findings echo the results of another recent study. When presented with a hypothetical scenario, a majority of Americans perceived a drone strike against a terrorist that also resulted in a civilian casualty as legitimate.

Findings from this latter study suggest that most Americans are indecisive about the oversight of drone warfare. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Congress has exercised little oversight of drones. As Sarah Kreps and Miles McCain wrote here at TMC in 2017, Congress has been nearly absent from drone oversight despite drones being a “weapon of choice” for U.S. counterterrorism policy.

20 years later, America’s ‘War on Terror’ language has gone global

But drones rely heavily on military intelligence

What does the Aug. 29 drone strike mean for the “over-the-horizon” U.S. strategy in Afghanistan? This strategy incorporates drone strikes and raids by U.S. Special Operations forces to prevent terrorist attacks against the United States, but without a significant U.S. military presence on the ground or even at bases across Central and South Asia.

The use of drone warfare as a counterterrorism strategy is predicated on the U.S. military’s ability to certify the value of a target, positively identify the target and determine the intended effect of a drone strike, including the implications of failure. Integral to these tasks is intelligence, the most decisive of which can be collected locally on the battlefield.

A major challenge for this strategy is the absence of intelligence needed to minimize civilian casualties. This may explain why Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, the last operational commander in Afghanistan, advised leaving a few thousand soldiers in the country.

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In admitting the tragic mistake of the Aug. 29 strike, McKenzie noted that “this strike certainly did not come up to our standards.” So what are those standards?

U.S. presidents have waxed and waned between “near” and “reasonable” certainty of no civilian casualties. Obama adopted a standard of “near certainty” that civilians “will not be injured or killed.” President Donald Trump appeared to provide exceptions, allowing for “reasonable certainty” for civilian adult men, keeping the rule of “near certainty” for women and children. Before the recent strike, Biden was reportedly studying both of these thresholds.

Armed drones contribute to the illusion that wars can be won on the cheap. The recent strike reminds us that’s not the case, but also that there is little political incentive for policymakers to change the way they use these weapons.

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Sarah Kreps is the John L. Wetherill professor of government at Cornell University and director of the Cornell Tech Policy Lab.

Paul Lushenko is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, doctoral student at Cornell University and co-editor of the forthcoming volume “Drones and Global Order: Implications of Remote Warfare for International Society” (Routledge).

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Department of the Army, U.S. Department of Defense or U.S. government.