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.

Posts by Category

Showing posts for "Military Policy"

Will Killing Mullah Mansour Work?

by Micah Zenko
Mullah Mansour, Taliban militants' new leader, is seen in this undated handout photograph by the Taliban. (Handout via Reuters). Mullah Mansour, Taliban militants' new leader, is seen in this undated handout photograph by the Taliban. (Handout via Reuters).

On Saturday, the Pentagon released a remarkable statement: “Today, the Department of Defense conducted an airstrike that targeted Taliban leader Mullah Mansur.” Soon after, a tweet from the Office of the Chief Executive of Afghanistan, Abdullah Abdullah, read, “#Taliban leader #AkhtarMansoor was killed in a drone strike in Quetta, #Pakistan at 04:30 pm yesterday. His car was attacked in Dahl Bandin.” An anonymous U.S. official stated, “Mansour was the target and was likely killed,” while the Pentagon press release noted, “We are still assessing the results of the strike.” As of Monday afternoon, the Taliban had yet to release any statement. Read more »

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) 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) 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 »

Sen. Ted Cruz and the Myth of Carpet Bombing

by Micah Zenko
Republican Presidential candidate Ted Cruz speaks at a rally at the Boys and Girls Club of Truckee Meadows in Reno, Nevada on February 22, 2016. (Glover/Reuters) Republican Presidential candidate Ted Cruz speaks at a rally at the Boys and Girls Club of Truckee Meadows in Reno, Nevada on February 22, 2016. (Glover/Reuters)

On December 5, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) while speaking at the FreedomWorks “Rising Tide” Summit in Des Moines, Iowa, made the alarming pledge, “If I am elected president, we will utterly destroy ISIS…We will carpet bomb them into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out!” Cruz’s promise to authorize the commitment of war crimes, presumably in an effort to sound “tough,” was met with derision by most other Republican presidential candidates, politicians of both parties, and senior military officials. Cruz subsequently amended his initial promise to say, “you would carpet bomb where ISIS is, not a city, but the location of the troops…you have embedded special forces to direction [sic] the air power. But the object isn’t to level a city. The object is to kill the ISIS terrorists.” Read more »

Why a Syria Safe Zone Still Won’t Work or Protect Civilians

by Micah Zenko
Residents inspect damage after airstrikes by pro-Syrian government forces in the rebel held Al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on February 4, 2016. (Ismail/Reuters) Residents inspect damage after airstrikes by pro-Syrian government forces in the rebel held Al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on February 4, 2016. (Ismail/Reuters)

Respected former U.S. diplomats Nicholas Burns and James Jeffrey published a Washington Post op-ed today, calling on the U.S. military to lead the creation of a “safe zone” in northern Syria. The authors propose, “to locate it over twenty-five to thirty miles south of the Turkish border….Its central purpose would be to help local forces drive out the Islamic State and to provide a haven for civilians until the war can be brought to a close.” Burns and Jeffrey further acknowledge some of the difficulties involved with their proposal, admitting that, “the United States would have to deploy U.S. soldiers on the ground inside Syria along the Turkish border in order to recruit the majority of the zone’s soldiers from Turkey and other NATO allies, as well as the Sunni Arab states.” This safe haven would be further protected by a no-fly zone operating primarily out of Turkish airbases. Read more »

Donald Trump as Commander-in-Chief

by Micah Zenko
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump gives a thumbs up gesture at his caucus night rally in Des Moines, Iowa on February 1, 2016. (Bourg/Reuters) Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump gives a thumbs up gesture at his caucus night rally in Des Moines, Iowa on February 1, 2016. (Bourg/Reuters)

I have a piece on ForeignPolicy.com that attempts to evaluate what sort of commander in chief Donald Trump might be if actually elected president. After his second place finish in the Iowa caucuses last night, pundits might be writing off his chances to secure the Republican nomination, yet again. However, the Iowa caucus process is wholly unique and may not be representative of Trump’s overall national momentum. In addition, he has retained double-digit leads over his rivals in New Hampshire and South Carolina, the site of the next primaries scheduled for February 9 and 20, respectively. 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) 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) 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 »

Chuck Hagel’s Revealing Insight Into Obama’s Syria Strategy

by Micah Zenko
Outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel walks during a farewell ceremony at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Virginia on January 28, 2015. (Gripas/Reuters) Outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel walks during a farewell ceremony at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Virginia on January 28, 2015. (Gripas/Reuters)

Last week, former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel gave his first extended interview since resigning as Pentagon chief in November 2014. The curated interview with Foreign Policy is worth reading in its entirety, if for nothing else than the insights into how White House officials and staffers micromanaged Department of Defense decisions; Hagel claims that staffers would call generals “asking fifth-level questions that the White House should not be involved in.” (This would not be the first or last White House charged with this degree of oversight.) 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) 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 »