This week, The New York Times and Washington Post both reported that the Biden administration has begun an intensive review of counterterrorism direct action – i.e., drone strikes and commando raids – with the intention of restoring higher standards for such operations than prevailed during the Trump administration. Like so many of the early Biden administration actions, this one seems intent on overturning objectionable Trump policies, in this case, a policy that took the drone campaign away from the highly discriminate, precise, and deliberative approach that he inherited from Obama. But it would be a mistake if this review becomes just an opportunity to reinstate Obama standards. The world has changed, the U.S. counterterrorism fight has evolved, and the role of counterterrorism in broader U.S. foreign policy has been reduced. This review should certainly embrace the core principles underpinning the 2013 Obama policy – a high threshold for action, an emphasis on preventing civilian casualties, and deliberative review of operations – but these should be updated for the current era. And more broadly, the administration should see this review as an opportunity take some first critical steps toward ending the forever wars.
Where to start?
The first thing this review must do is take stock of the Trump era. President Trump, in a pivot away from the increasing (though highly incomplete) transparency of the final Obama years, plunged the drone program back into secrecy. His administration rolled back an annual public accounting of all U.S. counterterrorism operations outside of hot warzones, reduced disclosures about operations in Yemen and other key theaters, secretly issued new guidance for its operations without ever publicly disclosing the new document or even discussing its parameters, and often (though not always) thwarted congressional calls for more public accounting of its counterterrorism policies and legal interpretations. Unpacking Trump’s legacy requires a thorough accounting of all strikes taken during the past four years and the results of those operations, including both combatants and civilians killed. It calls for evaluating all of the theaters where Trump approved strikes (or delegated that approval authority) and what press accounts suggest is a patchwork of different policy guidance by theater. It requires getting an accounting of the justification and purpose of all operations. And it requires understanding what arrangements and promises the Trump administration might have made with host countries, what range of actors it might have aligned with in executing operations, and what kind of intelligence it accepted as actionable to drive operations.
We don’t fully know the record of the Trump years but what we do know suggests a sprawling counterterrorism campaign. There are indications that the administration conducted strikes against suspected high-value terrorists, lower level foot soldiers, and terrorist infrastructure. Strikes and raids were reportedly taken on a unilateral basis, in support of partner offensives, and in an increasingly expansive notion of collective self defense of partner forces. U.S. special operators conducted ground operations – losing several of their own in the process – in actions that were apparently not authorized during the Obama administration. In Yemen and elsewhere, U.S. partners engaged in a series of abuses in pursuit of counterterrorism objectives. This is a tangle of operations with different purposes, risks, and outcomes, and the administration needs to get its hands around all of these before developing its own enduring guidance.
The administration will then need to begin sorting through what kind of guidance might apply. Here, the temptation may be strong to adopt a framework that largely revives the May 2013 Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG) that governed U.S. direct action operations in President Obama’s second term. This would be a mistake, given how the counterterrorism fight and U.S. strategy have changed. But the new approach should follow several core principles that underpin the PPG:
Maintain a high threshold for action. The PPG took as its starting point that lethal operations could be conducted only against a terrorist target that poses a “continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons” and only when capture was not feasible. As I have previously argued, there are reasons to reconsider whether “continuing, imminent threat” is the right standard, but it gets a big thing right – it’s a high standard to meet before taking lethal action. Operations should be authorized against only the most vital of threats or the targets most likely to substantially degrade a terrorist group. It should be difficult to get strikes approved, because conducting lethal strikes outside areas of active hostilities should not be the norm. As to the requirement of pursuing capture first, this should remain in any future document. In fact, it should probably be strengthened as a requirement, given the lopsided ratio of lethal strikes versus captures over the past several years.
Prioritize civilian protection. From an ethical and strategic perspective, it’s clear that preventing civilian casualties must be central to U.S. counterterrorism policies. The PPG required “near certainty” that civilians would not be harmed before a strike could be approved, a standard which the Trump administration appears to have weakened in certain locations and circumstances. This standard should be reinstated, and perhaps even further strengthened in any new document. Exceptions should be authorized only in the most extraordinary of circumstances and should be accompanied with some sort of accountability mechanism, such as a public report or report to Congress. Further, in light of continued allegations by credible non-governmental organizations that U.S. casualties are higher than the government acknowledges, the administration should review current procedures and how operating agencies interpret “near certainty of no civilian casualties,” both in the run-up to an operation and in evaluating the casualties from a strike, to ensure operations align with policy intent.
Ensure intensive interagency review and alignment with foreign policy objectives. Direct action, almost by definition, can have strategic consequences, both good and bad. That’s why it’s important that these operations undergo substantial scrutiny, not just by the agency proposing them but by civilian officials across the government, who can focus on whether they align with broader foreign policy objectives and develop contingency plans for if things go wrong. The PPG set forth a process for such intensive interagency review, yet it was often criticized – and not without merit – for creating a bottleneck for important operations and subjecting operations to the review of people with little operational expertise. Further, the emphasis on White House review of operations came with an opportunity cost – every meeting spent discussing military operations was potentially a meeting in which the U.S. government did not discuss civilian-led or preventative strategies for counterterrorism. This does not mean the administration should abandon interagency review but rather that the State Department, intelligence community, and other senior officials in Washington should focus on developing standing policy guidance – as a baseline and for specific theaters – and then conducting periodic review of operations to ensure they comply with that guidance. The relevant ambassador should be required to concur with a strike before it can be conducted, and senior officials in Washington should be notified of operations and their results. But the day-to-day oversight of operations should be delegated to an empowered Secretary of Defense (and his senior civilian team), who the President is ready to hold accountable for ensuring operations align with policy.
The forever wars: beginning of the end?
Although these principles should guide the new administration, the Biden team should not just snap back to the Obama standards. The world has changed – both over the past four years of the Trump administration and over the eight years since the PPG was issued. Al-Qaeda and ISIS have taken a pounding, both from drone strikes, ground operations, and partnered action. The fight is not over, but both groups have been badly degraded. Further, the political conversation around counterterrorism has changed. The American public and a bipartisan chorus of political leaders, including the President himself, are calling for an end to the forever wars.
As we approach the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, we should be asking whether we want to be indefinitely caught in the process of killing people in secret in multiple countries around the world. Does the United States need hundreds of troops in Somalia or the Sahel? Should the United States reshape or discontinue counterterrorism operations in Yemen, given the ongoing nightmare of the Saudi-led civil war? What impact might our operations and those of our allies be having on Libya’s tense political environment? More broadly, what is the nature of the terrorist threat today and how likely are we to face a 9/11-scale attack versus smaller, inspired attacks? Must we chase an elusive set of threats wherever they pop up in the world or can we rely more on our substantial homeland security apparatus? This review is a venue to ask these and other hard questions and then to make bold decisions about where the United States deploys its forces, how it can show restraint in its use of force, and where non-military approaches can take primacy.