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News analysis: Did the drone strike on an Iranian general set a dangerous global precedent?

In this Jan. 31, 2010, file photo, an unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan, on a moonlit night.
Kirsty Wigglesworth, Associated Press

Editor’s note: Dodge Billingsley is an independent scholar, director of Combat Films & Research and a military analyst with more than 25 years’ experience covering conflict and global hot spots. He is based in Salt Lake City and offers this perspective on drone strikes for the Deseret News.

SALT LAKE CITY — Friday’s killing of an Iranian major general near the Baghdad airport represents a significant escalation in the use of drones for the U.S. military, and could set a dangerous precedent for the rest of the world.

While the United States has used drones to kill terrorists without congressional approval for more than 20 years, this week’s killing of Qassem Soleimani marks the first time the U.S. has used a drone to kill a senior state official, and it remains to be seen what impact that will have on the United States and the rest of the world.

No country has used more drone strikes than the U.S. to carry out military objectives, and the way the U.S. has used drones has set a precedent for the rest of the world. The number of these strikes has steadily escalated since the late 1990s, as have the reasons for their use.

But until now the American military had never used a drone to kill a senior government official. Killing Soleimani crosses a threshold past presidents weren’t willing to cross. The question is: will other countries now use drones to target state officials? Could Russia, for example, use a drone strike to kill a high-ranking state official in the Ukraine? And if these sort of drone strikes become commonplace, what will that mean for global stability and peace?

Drones in American combat

To understand how we got to this point, it’s helpful to consider America’s pioneering use of drones in combat. After 9/11, and at the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, the Department of Defense could not legally arm a drone. Only the CIA flew armed drones. In fact, the CIA had been working on arming drones to seek out and kill Osama bin-Ladin before 9/11 but after those attacks, the U.S. position was basically that it would use drones to kill suspected terrorists and non-state actors if the host nation is unwilling or unable to do so.

Today there are at least 10 countries known to have weaponized drones including some of America’s adversaries, like Russia. One of the earliest U.S. drone strikes occurred in March 2002, near the very coordinates in eastern Afghanistan where a dozen or more U.S. special operations personnel were fighting for their lives on a snow covered mountaintop which became known as Roberts Ridge for a Navy SEAL who lost his life during that battle.

That battle, part of Operation Anaconda, pitted both U.S. conventional and special operations forces against the Taliban. The U.S. had ample helicopter support but it was so early on in the war in Afghanistan that there were not a lot of other aircraft available to support ground forces in such close proximity to the enemy. A-10 attack aircraft were being sent from Kuwait but were still at least a half-day away from the battle.

For hours, F-16 and F-15 fighter jets tried to support the surrounded troops by dropping bombs and strafing enemy positions. But these “fast movers” as the Air Force personnel like to call them, fly too fast to be able to drop their munitions accurately on enemy positions so close to the American positions. In the end it was a CIA Predator drone that showed up overhead. Working together, the military commanders conducting the battle, and the CIA operatives operating the drone flight, fired two hellfire missiles into the Taliban position eliminating the enemy — essentially saving the day for the surviving special forces personnel on the mountaintop.

At the time, 2002, only the CIA, under the domain of covert operations, deployed armed drones. The Air Force drones in Afghanistan were known as “vanilla” Predators because they had no weapons on them and were strictly used for surveillance and intelligence-gathering. This had more to do with issues of legality. Drones were a new battlefield weapon and there were no rules of war at the time to support their use. The CIA, operating under a completely different set of parameters, dominated the use of armed drones.

Gradually, during the Bush administration, the Department of Defense was given authority to use armed drones. Still, President George W. Bush only authorized a handful of drone strikes in Afghanistan. In 2009, the Obama administration transferred the use of all armed drones to the armed forces, taking them out of the CIA’s toolbox essentially in exchange for more transparency.

With the new transparency, President Barack Obama authorized 542 drone strikes that killed an estimated 3,797 people, according to data compiled by the Council on Foreign Relations. Attacks took place primarily in Afghanistan and the western tribal areas of Pakistan. These are areas in which it would be nearly impossible to use U.S. military personnel to conduct on-the-ground operations. The attacks sought to take away safe zones that the Taliban and al Qaeda would use without fear of reprisal.

The path forward

Using drones to kill U.S. adversaries has not been without its critics. A variety of sources, including periodic admission from the Pentagon itself, has indicated that civilians have been killed by U.S. drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Different sources cite different casualty rates but the number of civilians killed by drones certainly is in the hundreds. These numbers are, again, another indication that the bullet is only as good as the intelligence behind the shot. The enemies of the United States have also gotten smarter, surrounding themselves with family members, women and children, making the decision to launch a drone strike frequently fraught with risk to noncombatants

In 2013, Obama acknowledged that four Americans had been killed by U.S. drone strikes since his administration began in 2009. Of those four, only one was an actual target, Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in Yemen. Al-Awlaki was a Yemeni American who grew up in New Mexico but had become radicalized and actively engaged against the United States. Obama declared the strike a major blow to an al Qaeda affiliate. However, the attack was condemned by many as an extra-judicial killing since al-Awlaki was a U.S. citizen.

Fast forward to the Trump administration. In 2017, President Donald Trump reversed Obama’s decision to take the CIA out of the armed drone business and once again conduct drone strikes against the nation’s foreign enemies. Trump’s decision has been met with mixed reviews. It goes back to the very nature of the CIA, which has the legal authority to deny — to not be accountable.

The attack on Soleimani is exactly the type of strike drones were made for, a precision attack with limited risk of civilian casualties. What makes it unique is the rank and stature of the target. While the U.S. has targeted significant terrorists around the world, this is the first time such a high-ranking state actor has been the target. Iran promises severe retaliation. The U.S. claims the attack was in response to decades of violence against American targets under Soleimani’s watch. Whatever the future holds, it is certain that this won’t be the last drone strike.