U.S. Poised To Ease Limits On Drone Strikes

The Trump administration is preparing to relax Obama-era rules on drone strikes and commando raids, according to a new report by the New York Times. Charlie Savage and Eric Schmitt, citing officials familiar with internal deliberations, reported in the Times last week that the Trump White House plans to replace Obama-era policy guidelines on the use of force outside conventional battlefields. In an attempt to streamline bureaucratic review processes and lower the threshold for the use of force, the Obama administration’s Presidential Policy Guidance (P.P.G.) on the use of force is expected to be replaced by President Trump with a new Principles, Standards, and Procedures (P.S.P.) document. President Trump’s top national security advisers have reportedly proposed two main changes to Obama administration rules; one related to permissible targets of “kill missions” and one related to vetting.

The first rule change would see the target criteria of kill missions by the military and the CIA expanded. At present, targets are generally limited to high-level militants deemed to pose a “continuing and imminent threat” to Americans, but under proposed changes, the threat threshold would be removed. Under the new rules, American officials would be able to target foot-soldier jihadists with no special skills or leadership roles. The second rule change would mean proposed American drone attacks would no longer undergo high-level vetting. Such changes would lay the groundwork for potential counter-terrorism missions in countries where Islamic militants are known to be active, but where the United States has not previously tried to capture or kill them.

The Trump administration’s move to ease limits on drone strikes and commando raids raises concerns about potential human rights consequences. Proponents of drone strikes contend that drones are a precise, cost-effective means to combat terrorism with minimal civilian casualties. Critics, on the other hand, say drones kill a large number of civilians, violate international law, and create more terrorists than they kill. While drones have been successfully used by the United States to kill senior members of terrorist groups, such as the leader of Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate organization, Abu Sayed, they are also responsible for many civilian casualties. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, American drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen killed between 384 and 807 civilians during President Obama’s two terms in office.

In a promising sign, Trump administration officials are reportedly planning to leave in place an Obama-era rule that requires organizers of drone attacks to ensure there is a “near certainty” that no civilian bystanders will be killed. However, this by itself is no guarantee that civilians will be sufficiently protected. In fact, even with this safeguard in place, the Obama administration was frequently criticized by human rights groups for failing to adequately protect civilians. Earlier this year, for instance, Human Rights Watch criticized President Obama for increasing the use of aerial drones “without sufficient clarity about the legal framework for targeted killing,” and for keeping drone strikes “shrouded in secrecy.”

The Trump administration’s decision to further reduce the safeguards around the use of drones is a concerning development for those worried about the human cost of drone strikes. As Zeke Johnson, Senior Director of Programs for Amnesty International U.S.A., noted, “the Obama administration’s policy guidance on the use of lethal force was a positive step but fell far short on human rights protections.” Any decision by the Trump administration to further weaken those standards, he said, would be a grave mistake.