Policy of US drone strikes likely to continue after November elections
Washington - The US presidential election is likely to confirm drone strikes as key instruments of Washington’s counterterrorism efforts in the Middle East, analysts said. Depending on the outcome of the vote between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, even methods some consider torture could make a comeback.
“What do you think about waterboarding?” Trump, the Republican Party candidate for president, asked during a campaign rally in June, referring to a method in which water is poured over a restrained suspect’s face, resulting in the sensation of drowning. “I like it a lot,” Trump said. “I don’t think it’s tough enough.”
Waterboarding was used in US interrogations of terror suspects following the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11th, 2001, but banned by President Barack Obama in 2009. Trump said the United States should lift the ban and step up its fight against foreign adversaries. “You have to fight fire with fire,” he said.
Despite the tough talk, it is not clear whether Trump as president could reverse the ban on waterboarding. John Brennan, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), said in July he would rather resign than oversee a new programme of waterboarding.
Gordon Adams, a professor emeritus US foreign policy at the American University in Washington, said that, although Trump had not presented a comprehensive plan on security matters, statements by the candidate indicated that “his instincts push him towards such a behaviour”. A possible determination by Trump to reintroduce techniques such as waterboarding could lead to a “major battle with the bureaucracy”, Adams said.
Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution think-tank in Washington said many in the intelligence community and in the military were against using waterboarding “99.999% of the time”. Having called for the reintroduction of the method on the campaign trail, Trump could perhaps get around that opposition by reserving the possibility of waterboarding for very few cases. “He would probably keep it as an option but not use it very often,” O’Hanlon said.
As for the use of armed drones, O’Hanlon said the unmanned planes would continue to be used by the next administration but not as frequently as they have been by Obama. “It won’t end but we are likely to see less of it,” he said.
One reason was that many targets suitable for drone strikes have already been hit. Also, the United States can rely on manned fighter jets in countries such as Syria or Iraq because the presence of US forces in those conflicts is no secret.
Hillary Clinton, the Democrat Party candidate, was known to support Obama’s frequent use of drone attacks on suspected terrorists during her 2009-13 tenure as secretary of State.
Adams said he would expect Clinton to continue drone strikes because “this is the policy she endorsed when she was in the administration”. Drone attacks are consistent with Clinton’s foreign policy stance, Adams said. “She’s an interventionist,” he added.
A Trump administration would also be expected to use drones, Adams said. Although Trump was a “wild card in foreign policy”, statements by the Republican candidate suggested that drone strikes would fit his approach to foreign affairs. “Drones are such handy things for a president to reach for,” Trump has said.
Drone strikes have become a much-used weapon for the United States in its fight against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS). Attacks by unmanned vehicles are less visible and pose less of a risk of diplomatic tensions than strikes by fighter jets. They also carry no risk of human losses for the US military in areas where Washington is unwilling to deploy troops.
Government figures released in July said the CIA and the US military conducted 473 drone strikes from 2009 through the end of last year. Drones have killed many high-profile extremists, including the US-born Muslim cleric Anwar al- Awlaki, a senior figure of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Hafiz Saeed Khan, an ISIS leader in Afghanistan, was killed in a drone attack last month. According to the US government figures, as many as 116 civilians have died in drone attacks since 2009.
Clinton is not expected to endorse a return of waterboarding but one former official who has been named in news reports as a member of a team of security experts advising the Democratic candidate has publicly called for targeted assassinations to demonstrate America’s determination vis-à-vis countries such as Russia and Iran.
“You’re not telling the world about it, right? You don’t stand up at the Pentagon and say: ‘We did this’, right?” Mike Morrell, a former acting head of the CIA, who is supporting Clinton in the campaign, told PBS interviewer Charlie Rose. “But you make sure they know it in Moscow and Tehran.”
In Syria, Morrell said the United States should concentrate on assets close to President Bashar Assad. “I want to scare Assad,” he said. “I want to go after his Presidential Guard. I wanna bomb his offices in the middle of the night.”
Morrell said he would destroy Assad’s presidential plane and his helicopters on the ground. “I want to make him think we are coming after him,” Morrell stressed he was not calling for Assad’s assassination but for putting him under pressure to make him accept a political solution for the conflict.