By Judson Berger, ,
Published December 23, 2015
President Obama, to limited success, has tried to dismantle the most controversial counterterror tools of the Bush administration. But along the way, he's rapidly built up one of those tools into the hallmark of America's anti-Al Qaeda machine.
In a little under three years, Obama has established himself as the drone president. Though he put a halt to harsh interrogations, overhauled the military commissions, and made baby steps toward shutting down Guantanamo Bay, his war on terror a decade after 9/11 is defined by a program every bit as dicey for America's image.
In the simplest terms, the drone program is war by remote control. Military or CIA officers in one hemisphere can extinguish a militant in another hemisphere without ever entering a war zone. The appeal is apparent -- low cost, low risk, high return. And its reach is ever-expanding, wiping out scores of terror leaders and operatives around the world but at great expense to U.S. reputation in host countries.
As U.S. forces prepare for a complete withdrawal from Iraq and gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan, the drone program is expected to stay -- leaving Obama with the question of whether this will become the face of U.S. foreign policy.
Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has studied the drone program, is not alone in saying that's already the case in Pakistan.
"There are rap songs. They're mentioned in sit-coms. They're just sort of everywhere. It's this image of all the United States does is drones," he said.
As a consequence, the downside of drones is starting to flare. The highly secretive and deadly program fuels already-deep suspicion and paranoia in Pakistan. Officials say the program is incalculably valuable, but some say the U.S. could be in danger of over-relying on it.
"It's an effective strategy, but to a point," said Daniel Green, a Navy reserve officer and former State Department adviser who has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Aside from the diplomatic drawback, Bush administration attorney John Yoo said the current administration is losing valuable intelligence by killing terror leaders as opposed to capturing them.
"It's very satisfying but we lose all the intelligence those guys had," he told Fox News. Yoo chalked up the current approach to Obama's aversion to dealing with the tricky issues of detention and interrogation.
The drone program has evolved significantly over the past decade.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the military's version of the program was incorporated into the Iraq and Afghanistan wars -- there, the drones were just one aspect of those wars, far less important than the presence of U.S. military and diplomatic corps. But in Pakistan and elsewhere, the secretive, CIA-run offshoot has become, as ex-CIA Director Leon Panetta stated in 2009, "the only game in town."
Perhaps realizing this, the Bush administration started to ramp up the program in 2008. That year, there were 33 strikes in Pakistan, according to an organization that tracks drone attacks. By 2010, Obama had nearly quadrupled the number of strikes, eliminating hundreds of militants in the untamed tribal areas of Pakistan.
Over the past few years, the United States has gotten really good at this. In 2008, the strikes were less precise. According to numbers kept by the New America Foundation, roughly half of those killed were militants -- though such figures are in dispute, and a separate tally kept by The Long War Journal showed about 90 percent of those killed were Taliban or Al Qaeda affiliated.
But in 2010, militants accounted for at least 95 percent of those killed, both studies showed. That level of accuracy has been sustained so far this year.
The latest major drone takedown occurred last month, when a strike killed Al Qaeda No. 2 Atiyah Abd al-Rahman. That was after Usama bin Laden was taken out in a non-drone Navy SEALs raid on his Pakistan compound.
Former CIA Director Michael Hayden hails the program as a success. He told Fox News it is killing Al Qaeda leadership faster than they can be replaced, and downplayed the diplomatic complications.
"An awful lot of the senior Al Qaeda leadership has been killed in the tribal region since July of 2008. I think we can also all agree that has created some tension between ourselves and the Pakistani government. It would be wrong to judge that that and that alone has created those tensions. Those tensions have many other sources. And I, for one, believe that the success in taking senior Al Qaeda leadership off the battlefield more than outweighs whatever complications it creates for the broader American-Pakistani relationship," Hayden said.
With confidence in the program growing, it is expanding into other countries. What was believed to be the first drone strike in Somalia was reported in June. The CIA is also looking to expand into Yemen. According to an account kept by Zenko, there were three or four strikes in Yemen this year.
Zenko said that in Pakistan they're an effective tool, considering the U.S. does not have a ground army there and Pakistani forces have not done enough to target militants. However, he said, "If it is the only game in town, it's not going to work long-term."
Though he predicted the program would expand through North Africa, he said the U.S. cannot "collapse" terror networks with drone strikes alone.
He and Green said the U.S. still needs to work more with the governments and people of those countries.
"It's got to be part of a holistic strategy," said Green, now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
That doesn't mean a ground war. Green, who was at the Pentagon on 9/11, said the State Department and USAID need more resources to send into these countries. More of an effort should be made, he said, to install diplomatic personnel in places like Yemen and Somalia long-term, so they can build a relationship with the people there. More of a focus on training foreign military would also help.
The Obama administration's latest counterterrorism strategy, unveiled in June, indicates the military and CIA will not be holding back on use of force. The strategy reiterated that the goal is to defeat Al Qaeda "wherever it takes root," and use "the full range of our foreign policy tools" to the protect the homeland.
Fox News' Catherine Herridge contributed to this report.