In a recent piece for Just Security, Former NSC Senior Director for Counterterrorism Luke Hartig recently analyzed the Trump administration’s new drone strike policies and their implications for human rights, national security, and U.S. foreign policy. According to The New York Times, President Trump is considering a new policy for drone strikes recommended by his national security team. The administration is expected to publish a Principles, Standards, and Procedures (PSP) document, which will replace the Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG) that was drafted during President Obama’s administration. The revised policy could substantially impact counterterrorism operations around the world, particularly Yemen.
According to administration officials who spoke to the New York Times, President Trump’s new policy affirms the legal, ethical, and strategic importance of minimizing civilian casualties when considering drone strikes. It will retain President Obama’s “near certainty” standard that civilians will not be killed during a strike because counterterrorism experts understand that excessive civilian casualties are exploited by terrorists as a recruitment and rallying tool. Hartig also emphasizes that the “near certainty” standard affirms the United States’ commitment to international legal and human rights norms. But given the fact that dozens of Yemeni civilians have already been killed in counterterrorism operations under Trump, it is difficult to believe that his advisors and commanders will respect this standard in actual practice.
The Principles, Standards, and Procedures (PSP) will reportedly lower the threshold for targeting terrorists. Under President Obama, only terrorists that posed a “continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons” were to be targeted for attack. President Trump’s policy would eliminate the threat standard and allow targeting of any terrorist, irrespective of leadership rank, threat level, or unique skills. According to Hartig, the “imminent threat” standard’s removal signals a blow for international human rights norms and a shift toward less constrained counterterrorism tactics. It may also contribute to a substantial increase in the frequency of drone strikes that could trigger backlash from the international community and rally terrorists to increase attacks against the United States. But it is important to note that despite this ostensible restriction, most of the people killed in drone strikes under President Obama were foot soldiers at best, so this change is perhaps better understood as bringing policy into conformity with practice.
Similarly, the Obama administration claimed it preferred to capture suspects rather than kill them, but the facts demonstrated otherwise. Where the Trump administration will come down on this question is ambiguous as well. Hartig seems to agree with the conventional wisdom that capture operations increase the likelihood of American casualties but reduce the likelihood of civilian casualties while also providing valuable intelligence. But under Trump, we’ve seen two ground raids that were framed as capture or intelligence-gathering operations, both of which resulted in almost unprecedented numbers of civilian casualties. In his analysis, Hartig worries that President Trump’s revised guidelines may guide military officials toward more drone strikes and preclude capture operations altogether, and argues that this could hurt the United States diplomatically and limit important intelligence gathering capabilities that are necessary to prevent terrorist attacks. But since Trump’s ground raids in Yemen produced more civilian casualties than any US action since 2009, it is hard to imagine how drone strikes could be more diplomatically dangerous.
The PSP would also remove President Obama’s interagency review process, which Hartig argues will allow the military to conduct drone strikes with less bureaucratic obstacles and civilian oversight. It will be replaced by “country plans” in which drone strike policies will be approved on a per country basis subject to review and approval once a year. The determination of which countries constitute “areas of active hostilities” will significantly impact where drone strikes take place. President Trump could expand the number of hostile areas to include Yemen, Somalia, and Nigeria, thus significantly expanding counterrorism operations around the world. Coupled with the possibility of more frequent drone strikes, Hartig argues that with such an expansion, the United States risks violating international law, international human rights norms, and the sovereignty of multiple countries.
The consequences of President Trump’s proposed drone strike program are not immediately clear. It will likely reduce civilian constraints on the military while significantly expanding counterterrorism operations around the world. The new policy will require focused attention and scrutiny from the international community and the American public to ensure accountability.