Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Showing posts for "Drones and Targeted Killing"

Are Drones More Precise Than Manned Aircraft?

by Micah Zenko
A U.S. airman guides a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone as it taxis to the runway at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan on March 9, 2016. (Josh Smith/Reuters)

This blog post was coauthored with my research associate, Amelia M. Wolf.

In our latest piece at ForeignPolicy.com, we evaluate the Obama administration’s long-standing claim that drone strikes are more “precise” and cause fewer civilian fatalities than airstrikes by manned aircraft. We approach this challenge recognizing the limits of understanding who is being targeted and killed by all U.S. aerial operations. In addition, we admit that there are no wholly reliable or independently verifiable data sources, either from the U.S. government or research NGOs. Read more »

Obama’s Latest Admission on Drone Strikes

by Micah Zenko
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the University of Chicago Law School in Chicago, Illinois, on April 7, 2016. (Young/Reuters)

Yesterday, President Obama was asked a revealing question at the end of an appearance at the University of Chicago defending the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.  A student inquired about the president’s unilateral authority to authorize drone strikes outside of traditional battlefields, asking specifically:  “How are these killings morally and legally justified, and what kind of message does this drone program send about American values to the world, the American people, and to law students like myself who refuse to put trust in an opaque process.”  Naturally, Obama did not respond directly to the student’s question, but this twelve minute video segment (starting at 1:10:42) is worth reviewing in its entirety, as it is Obama’s longest unscripted reflection of the drone strikes that have come to define his approach to counterterrorism. Read more »

Evaluating Michael Hayden’s Defense of CIA Drone Strikes

by Micah Zenko
An MQ-9 Reaper takes off on Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan on December 5, 2015. (Cloys/U.S. Air Force)

Former director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Gen. Michael Hayden has an op-ed in today’s New York Times: “To Keep America Safe, Embrace Drone Warfare.” The two-thousand-word piece provides some unique insights into the process by which CIA directors authorize—including over the phone—individual drone strikes and even order the specific munition to be used. Moreover, Hayden provides a more plausible and granular defense than those offered by other former CIA chiefs, including George Tenet, Leon Panetta, and Michael Morrell. He even makes some effort to engage directly with certain prominent criticisms of these lethal operations. Read more »

Guest Post: What Happens if the Battlefield ‘Goes Dark’?

by Guest Blogger for Micah Zenko
A U.S. soldier smokes next to an armoured vehicle before a night operation in southeast Baghdad on September 12, 2007. The image below the soldier's face is a reflection of a GPS unit's screen, as seen from inside a vehicle. (Barria/Reuters)

Aaron Picozzi is a research associate for the military fellows at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The United States has recently enjoyed the tactical benefit of fighting enemies incapable of matching the technological prowess of the U.S. military. The use of modern weaponry against relatively antiquated forces has led to successful operations on the battlefield, particularly against the Taliban in Afghanistan. The U.S. military’s high-tech upper hand relies upon the leverage of these technological disparities, and in turn, has fostered an inflated level of combat supremacy. This problem resonates from foot soldiers to the highest level commanders and planners. Read more »

Obama’s Drone Warfare Legacy

by Micah Zenko
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a statement at the National Counterterrorism Center in Mclean, Virginia, on December 17, 2015. (Barria/Reuters)

Today, I have a short piece in the New York Times’ “Room for Debate,” accurately summarized by its title, “Obama’s Embrace of Drone Strikes Will Be a Lasting Legacy.” The piece shows how President Barack Obama institutionalized and normalized the use of drones to target various militant and terrorist suspects. It also includes the most updated data of post-9/11 non-battlefield drone strikes, updating our estimates from the five-hundredth such operation conducted in November 2014. As of today, there have been approximately 550 strikes—50 under George W. Bush, 500 under Obama, which have cumulatively killed an estimated 3,405 militants and 470 civilians. This information is fully presented in the chart below with the sources used. Read more »

How Many Bombs Did the United States Drop in 2015?

by Micah Zenko
Smoke and flames rise over Syrian town of Kobani after an airstrike, as seen from the Mursitpinar crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province on October 20, 2014. (Pfaffenbach/Reuters)

The primary focus—meaning the commitment of personnel, resources, and senior leaders’ attention—of U.S. counterterrorism policies is the capture or killing (though, overwhelmingly killing) of existing terrorists. Far less money and programmatic attention is dedicated to preventing the emergence of new terrorists. As an anecdotal example of this, I often ask U.S. government officials and mid-level staffers, “what are you doing to prevent a neutral person from becoming a terrorist?” They always claim this this is not their responsibility, and point toward other agencies, usually the Department of State (DOS) or Department of Homeland Security (DHS), where this is purportedly their obligation internationally or domestically, respectively. DOS and DHS officials then refer generally to “countering violent extremism” policies, while acknowledging that U.S. government efforts on this front have been wholly ineffective. Read more »

Presidential Candidates Use of Force Tracker

by Micah Zenko and Guest Blogger for Micah Zenko
Republican U.S. presidential candidates (L-R) Governor John Kasich (OH), former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), Dr. Ben Carson, Donald Trump, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), former governor Jeb Bush (FL), Governor Chris Christie (NJ) and Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) pose before the start of the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, Nevada on December 15, 2015. (Becker/Reuters)

This blog post was coauthored with my research associate, Amelia M. Wolf.

Presidential campaigns are largely consequence-free environments unburdened by the pressures and responsibilities that come with actually sitting in the White House. A candidate can say or pledge to do anything no matter how troubling, costly, or unlikely. The one policy recommendation that every presidential candidate has strongly endorsed during this election cycle—with differing degrees of scope and intensity— is the use of military power. With the sixteen-month war against the self-declared Islamic State stalemated and the percentage of Americans naming “national security and terrorism” the top federal government priority having nearly doubled since April, appeals to force have played an unusually significant role this presidential campaign. This is unsurprising, since military force remains the most responsive, fungible, and destructive foreign-policy tool that a candidate can propose. Unfortunately, the military options put forth may sound tough, but they are rarely articulated in a concrete and actionable manner, which makes it difficult to evaluate the wisdom of the proposals. Read more »

Is Incirlik a “Game-changer” in Destroying the Islamic State?

by Micah Zenko
An F-16 Fighting Falcon takes off from Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, in support of Operation Inherent Resolve on August 12, 2015. (Ardrey/U.S. Air Force )

On July 22, after months of negotiations, Turkey finally agreed to allow the United States to use its bases, most importantly Incirlik Air Base, for manned and unmanned strike sorties against the self-declared Islamic State. Prior to this, Turkey had only permitted that its sovereign territory be used for unarmed surveillance drone flights and (apparently) a combat search and rescue element. This latest development was characterized as a “game-changer” by a senior Obama administration official, in particular for more intensive bombing of the Islamic State in northern Syria. Read more »

Guest Post: Reevaluating U.S. Targeting Assistance to the Saudi-led Coalition in Yemen

by Guest Blogger for Micah Zenko
A man stands in front of a house destroyed by a Saudi-led air strike in Yemen's western city of Mokha on July 26, 2015. The strike killed at least fifty-five people and left tens injured. (Stringer/Reuters)

Samantha Andrews is an intern in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.

As the United States provides targeting assistance to the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council in Yemen, it should consider that its allies’ standards for target selection may be less rigorous. However, the United States is still partially responsible for airstrikes enabled with its intelligence. Contrary to the official U.S. position that it remains in a “non-combat advisory and coordinating role to the Saudi-led campaign,” this enabling support makes the United States a combatant in the Yemen air campaign. Even if the United States is not pulling the trigger, the “live intelligence feeds from surveillance flights over Yemen” that “help Saudi Arabia decide what and where to bomb” are indispensable for the launch of airstrikes against Houthi rebels. Read more »

Guest Post: The Rise of the Islamic State in Yemen

by Guest Blogger for Micah Zenko
People stand next to wreckage at the site of a June 29, 2015, car bomb attack in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, that was claimed by Islamic State and killed twenty-eight people. (Abdullah/Courtesy Reuters)

Samantha Andrews is an intern in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Today’s reported car bombing in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, is further evidence that, while the self-declared Islamic State may currently be the underdog in the jihadi rivalry unfolding in Yemen, it is steadily becoming stronger. Political instability resulting from the Houthi uprising, and subsequent Saudi-led intervention, has created a power vacuum in which the Islamic State is exerting its influence. Combined with its recent string of deadly attacks in Yemen and increase in affiliate groups, the group poses a direct challenge to Yemen’s largest jihadist group—al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Read more »