Former President Barack Obama left behind for his predecessor a covert extrajudicial drone targeting program that affords the executive unchecked power to employ American military force anywhere in the world with little to no accountability or congressional oversight. The type of program that secretly makes Dick Cheney jealous. In other words, Obama left the perfect tool for the New York billionaire and reality television star to achieve his stated foreign policy objectives in Afghanistan and beyond– or so Trump likely thinks.
On February 2, the Trump administration launched its first drone strike in Afghanistan in the Khost region, killing five Taliban militants, an omen that death from above would not be relegated to ISIS or Al Qaeda. One could easily imagine an intensification in the frequency of scenes like this throughout Afghanistan over the next four years or more for a number of reasons, chief among them being the fact it will be hard for Trump to resist the moral hazard the almighty drone presents.
Obama exploited drone technology to kill suspected militants to a degree that shocked many of the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s biggest supporters. The Obama White House sold it as a safer and more cost effective alternative to fighting terrorism than putting American lives at risk on the ground or in the sky.
But the paradox was, the tool’s benefits tempted launching more lethal extrajudicial killings. Now that the U.S. military had its tool, it was time to find the targets. Ironically, Obama himself preached against overreliance on military means in general, let alone targeted assassinations.
“U.S. military action cannot be the only – or even primary – component of our leadership in every instance,” Obama said at West Point in May of 2014. “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”
As Joshua Keating explained in Slate, liberals outraged with Trump forget that it was Obama who normalized the notion that the war on terror authorized the executive to carry out attacks against militants the world over. In fact, the Obama administration was “expanding its use of that authority up until the final days of his presidency.” Democrats under Obama, Keating argued, did not seem bothered by the concept of an “endless, vaguely defined war on terrorism, with no geographic boundaries and little accountability.”
Now, if a reserved peace activist/community organizer espousing principles of military restraint completely fails to live up to them, imagine what we will see from Mr. Trump who vowed in his inaugural speech to “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.”
This is also a man who implemented a ban on Muslims within his first few days in the Oval Office and wants to reinstitute torture and CIA black sites to both extract information and, as one former Bush official claimed, as a way to exact revenge. Hence, the ease at which drones would allow Trump to murder suspected terrorists for national security and vengeful purposes seems way too enticing.
Drones as a method do not only appeal to Trump’s personality alone, however, they also seem to align with many of his legitimate policy priorities. Look no further than his January 20 inaugural address for evidence that he is likely to eschew nation-building or long-term interventions.
“We’ve defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own,” Trump claimed. “And spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.”
In fact, on each of his first three days in office, Trump authorized drone strikes in central Yemen targeting Al Qaeda subsidiaries, testifying to the fact he has no qualms about tapping into the power of this lethal technology. Plus, according to a leaked document, the Trump administration’s policies would not be conducive to anything broader than counterterrorism missions and ill-suited for finding the proper political solution to end the conflict in Afghanistan.
The drone exemplifies the old adage of a tactic masquerading as a strategy. Trump will find that a limited decapitation strategy will not work in Afghanistan where the insurgency is like a hydra that is made more elusive by sanctuaries next door in Pakistan. In fact, drone strikes probably create more terrorists than they kill, as Trump’s own national security advisor Michael Flynn once said: “When you drop a bomb from a drone … you are gonna cause more damage than you’re gonna cause good.”
The reality is, drones were never the answer. However, the idea that resolving the conflict in Afghanistan requires an inclusive political accommodation – one that cut across tribal and ethnosectarian lines – fell on deaf ears in the Obama administration. And not too many Afghans are optimistic their voices will be heard in the new one.