Daniel L. Byman of the Brookings Institution says that targeting major terrorists like bin Laden removes charismatic and pragmatic leaders who are difficult to replace. In addition, by targeting an organization's lieutenants, "it is possible to exhaust the terrorist group's bench." CFR's Micah Zenko says that while drone strikes are an effective military tactic, "military victory is not tantamount to political success." He says that while a policy of leadership decapitation can reduce "a group's capacity, it neither ruptures group cohesion nor ideological commitment."
What is the Future of Targeted Killings?
Blowback from civil liberties and human rights groups is likely to grow in direct proportion to any increase in targeted killings. Organizations such as the ACLU and Human Rights Watch have raised pointed questions regarding the program's perceived lack of accountability and transparency. Others question if the United States is setting a negative precedent that will be invoked by other nations acquiring similar technology, such as China and Russia. As an indication of things to come, security analysts project worldwide spending on drone aircraft to roughly double over the next decade to $11.4 billion.
Analysts point to several factors that indicate U.S. targeted killings are likley to expand in the near term. Drone strikes and special operations raids put fewer Americans in harm's way and provide a low-cost alternative to expensive and cumbersome conventional forces, especially given likely cuts in the defense budget and a waning public appetite for long wars.
The rise of the so-called "non-state actors," operating in loose transnational networks, as the principal threat to U.S. national security also lends itself to an expansion of U.S. targeted killings, some experts say. In January 2012, the Pentagon released a fundamental strategy review that outlines defense priorities "in light of the changing geopolitical environment and our changing fiscal circumstances." The new guidance stresses the persistent threat of al-Qaeda and affiliates in South Asia and the Middle East, and commits the military to actively pursuing these threats by "directly striking the most dangerous groups and individuals when necessary."
Other experts say technological advances, including precision-guided munitions and enhanced surveillance, have given the United States a greater ability to target these particular individuals while reducing collateral damage. In July 2011, Chief Counterterrorism Adviser Brennan, provided a portent of things to come: "Going forward, we will be mindful that if our nation is threatened, our best offense won't always be deploying large armies abroad but delivering targeted, surgical pressure to the groups that threaten us."
President Obama's January 2013 nomination of Brennan to take over at the CIA has reinforced the notion among some analysts that targeted killings will continue to be a central component of U.S. counterterrorism policy. Brennan has played a significant role in the administration's expansion of targeted killings, including overseeing the process by which suspected militants and terrorists are selected for strikes.
Suggested Further Reading
In the Atlantic, Daniel Byman and Benjamin Wittes have sketched out a hypothetical decision tree that the White House may use to determine whether a suspected terrorist is ignored, prosecuted in federal court, held in a foreign prison, or "met with the business end of a Hellfire missile (aka drone strike)."
This report from Columbia Law School's Human Rights Clinic highlights the often unexamined costs and questions associated with targeted killings, including the precedent-setting nature of drone strikes, government accountability issues, and long-term effects on civilian populations.
In this Council Special Report, CFR's Micah Zenko argues that the United States should end its policy of killing unidentified militants simply based on their behavior patterns and personal networks, and limit strikes to specific terrorists that pose a transnational threat. He also urges Congress to expand its oversight of drone strikes and continue restrictions on armed drone sales. Finally, he recommends that Washington work with its international partners to establish rules and norms governing the use of drones.