Mission creep? The scope of Obama’s drone war

For Foreign Policy:

In a wide-ranging counter-terrorism speech in May, President Barack Obama indicated that he would be scaling back the war that the United States has engaged in since 9/11. And he said the targeted killing program that has become a major component of this war is aimed at “al Qaeda and its associated forces,” and “specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America,” using a legal standard put forth in the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force to justify the strikes.

The President also alluded to the idea that drone strikes in Pakistan can target groups helping the insurgency in Afghanistan, saying that until the 2014 U.S. withdrawal, he would continue to target “forces that are massing to support attacks on coalition forces.” But under Obama, the drone program has expanded to target a far greater range of militant groups than his May 23rd speech would indicate.

An exhaustive review of public data by this author shows that more than two-thirds of the strikes in Pakistan targeted groups whose principal aim was not to kill Americans in the homeland. And many of the strikes did not even target groups involved in the insurgency in Afghanistan. These findings confirm previous conclusions based on public data on the strikes.

President Obama has authorized six times as many drone strikes as President Bush, but killed half as many Al-Qaeda members. Many of the strikes have hit the foot-soldiers of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, while others have targeted groups on behalf of the Pakistani government. On May 29, the 369th American drone strike in Pakistan killed Wali-ur-Rehman, the second-in-command of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Until the United States began targeting the TTP on behalf of Pakistan in 2008, it arguably posed no threat to the American homeland, and the group was only a minor component of the insurgency in Afghanistan.

Even the idea that the drone strikes in Pakistan have reduced the threat to Americans in Afghanistan or the homeland is increasingly in jeopardy.

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