A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper armed with an AIM-9X Block 2 missile sits on the ramp at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, Sept. 3, 2020.

A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper armed with an AIM-9X Block 2 missile sits on the ramp at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, Sept. 3, 2020. Air Force / Senior Airman Haley Stevens

Redraw the Limits on Lethal Force Against Terror Groups

As the Biden administration reviews policies for use of lethal force outside war zones, it must be certain it’s not perpetuating a cycle of “forever wars.”

As the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan began last week, the Biden administration released a redacted version of former President Trump’s policy playbook that governed the use of lethal force against terrorism suspects, including via drone strikes. The new release renews public attention on a program that has been a cornerstone of America’s forever wars for nearly 20 years, and accentuates long-standing public concerns about the legacy of the post-9/11 security apparatus and the impact of U.S. lethal engagements. 

The release comes nearly four years after the Trump administration revised the rules and relaxed the safeguards put in place by the Obama administration in 2013 to at least try to restrain U.S. use of force in counterterrorism operations. The release also confirms concerns about the normalization of once-exceptional guidelines for the use of lethal force outside war zones around the world. 

Since 9/11, the United States has operated in an increasing number of theaters against a growing and shifting array of targets—many of whom have little to no formal association with the architects of the attacks. The results of both President Obama’s and President Trump’s policy guidance underscore the risks of this approach. While President Biden is reviewing these policies, there is a chance that he will simply modify, rather than impose meaningful constraints on, the decades-long program of conducting lethal airstrikes outside warzones largely in secret and without proper oversight or accountability. The Biden administration would do well to avoid that impulse.

There are several risks should the administration choose to maintain or expand the secretive U.S. program of lethal airstrikes—to include drone strikes—and the use of force more broadly in countries where the United States is not (or no longer) at war. Our new report, “A New Agenda for U.S. Drone Policy and the Use of Lethal Force,” examines these risks and offers recommendations for the Biden administration and Congress in advancing appropriate, rights-respecting, and responsible policies guiding the use of force and ultimately ending all the “forever wars.” 

First, there is a risk that public knowledge of U.S. use of lethal force in more countries, against more perceived adversaries, will remain dangerously constricted. The policy governing U.S. counterterrorism operations—including lethal airstrikes—remains secret, hindering public discourse and debate about U.S. actions and making it next to impossible to assess the strategic value and efficacy of these operations and to determine if such strikes are consistent with U.S. policy. Moreover, the legal and policy frameworks that established the “global war on terror” and facilitated the permissive use of lethal force in the U.S. drone program and beyond are now entrenched in national policy. The current U.S. approach has contributed to the use of lethal force in more than a dozen countries and could expand to several more.

Given the U.S. government’s permissive attitude toward the use of lethal force, there is also a risk of perpetuating harm to civilians and hindering accountability. Amid the normalization of drone strikes and the use of force against terrorism suspects, the American public still lacks a clear accounting of the impact and consequences of U.S. airstrikes on civilians and civilian livelihoods. There are gaps in government reporting, and non-government assessments indicate that civilians continue to shoulder the burden of U.S. operations. The U.S. government has taken tentative steps to learn more about the impact of strikes as well as to acknowledge and respond to mistakes, but almost no progress has been made to institutionalize accountability. 

Finally, should the United States sustain or even broaden its current approach, it risks setting a dangerous international precedent for the use of force and undermining the rule of law. Drones continue to proliferate at a rapid pace. The United States is among the world’s leading drone exporters and is at risk of not only increasing the availability of lethal drones but also exporting a problematic framework for their use. The U.S. government maintains a combination of laws, expansive legal interpretations, and policy guidance to rationalize the use of lethal force that has resulted in a complicated and confounding framework. This ambiguity can undermine confidence in the United States’ adherence to the rule of law and establish a dangerous precedent for opaque and unaccountable uses of force around the world.

The United States reserves the ability to use lethal force in new contexts, with new risks, yet with limited transparency and accountability. Such options were once viewed as exceptional but, in the last 20 years, have become entrenched in policy responses and counterterrorism strategies. 

The administration should resist any inclinations to reinvigorate the approach adopted during the Obama administration and exacerbated during the Trump administration. Instead, President Biden should develop a clear, concise, and constrained strategy that appropriately situates counterterrorism among other pressing security priorities. As the Biden administration reviews the policy and guidance governing the use of lethal force outside war zones, it must make certain that the ensuing counterterrorism policies and practices do not perpetuate a cycle of “forever wars” around the world. 

Rachel Stohl is Vice President and Shannon Dick is a Research Analyst at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.

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