Why the Obama administration’s drone war may soon reach a tipping point

James Joyner writes: In a speech Monday at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, John Brennan, President Obama’s counter-terrorism advisor, made a forthright defense of the drone war currently being conducted against Islamic militants in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. “As a result of our efforts,” he declared, “the United States is more secure and the American people are safer.” Brennan’s argument deserves credit for its boldness. Unfortunately, however, there’s good reason to doubt its veracity.

The first point in need of recognition is that while the Obama administration has long since dropped the phrase “Global War on Terror” from its lexicon, it has, through its amplified use of drones, escalated and expanded that war in all but name. On Monday, Brennan cited his administration’s achievements—the “death of bin Laden was our most strategic blow yet against al Qaeda” and “al Qaeda’s leadership ranks have continued to suffer heavy losses” from drone strikes inside Pakistan—but he also acknowledged that the government’s strategic focus simply shifted elsewhere as a result. Yemen’s al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has become “al Qaeda’s most active affiliate and it continues to seek the opportunity to strike our homeland.” Additionally, he pointed out, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has a growing presence in North and West Africa, while the al Qaeda affiliate Boko Haram is gaining steam in Nigeria.

The wider the drone war spreads, however, the more scrutiny it deserves. After all, strikes aimed at truly high-value targets like Osama bin Laden and other major terrorist leaders make obvious tactical and strategic sense. But willy-nilly targeting of low-level militants is quite likely do more harm than good. In a now-famous October 2003 memo, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reasonably figured that the key question in determining whether “we are winning or losing the global war on terror” was “Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?” [Continue reading…]

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