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U.S. drone policies a ‘slippery slope’ for continuous wars, report finds

Predators and other drones have become a staple of U.S. counterterrorism policy. (AIR FORCE VIA REUTERS)

Targeted drone strikes have become a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism policy, but a new report issued by a bipartisan panel of former intelligence and defense officials has concluded the approach constitutes a “slippery slope” toward a state of never-ending war.

The 81-page report, released by the Stimson Center on Thursday, also points to the fact that the Obama administration has yet to conduct any “strategic analysis” on the cost-benefit of continued drone strikes in places such as Yemen and Pakistan.

“A serious counterterrorism strategy needs to consider carefully, and constantly reassess the balance between kinetic action and other counterterrorism tools, and the potential unintended consequences of increased reliance on lethal UAV’s,” the report concludes, using the acronym for unmanned aerial vehicles.

The panel included retired Army Gen. John Abizaid, a former commander of U.S. Central Command, and Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown University, as well as a slew of other former senior military and CIA officials.

A spokeswoman for the National Security Council, Caitlin Hayden, declined to comment on the specifics of the report but said the administration complies with U.S. and international law.

The administration, she added, “is exploring ways we can provide more information about the United States’ use of force in counterterrorism operations outside areas of active hostilities, including information that provides the American people with a better understanding of U.S. assessments of civilian casualties.”

While the report is mostly critical of the Obama admiration’s drone strategy, it also goes on to dispel some of the myths surrounding the use of drones. The report notes that drones are no cheaper than manned aircraft and do not cause the high number of civilian casualties that some have alleged.

“UAV technologies, in fact, enable greater precision in targeting than most other common means of warfare,” the report reads.

Among critics, drones are seen as having severed pilots from actual battlefield conditions, and even some within the military see drone pilots as “glorified video game players.” Yet the report disputes that notion, noting that drone pilots are prone to post-traumatic stress as a result of continuous exposure to their targets and the ability to survey the damage inflicted after strikes.

“They may watch their targets for weeks or even months, seeing them go about the routines of daily life , before one day watching on screen as they are obliterated,” the report says.

The report also makes clear that the consequences of widespread drone use can ripple through civilian communities, which must grow accustomed to the steady hum of aircraft above them.

“The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes…is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one,”  Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former top commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, says in the report.

While the report notes that President Obama acknowledged many of the same concerns cited by the panel in his May 2013 speech at National Defense University, it goes on to suggest that America’s drone program requires both added transparency and oversight. Strikes should be assessed to ensure that they “are having a positive effect on US National security and not trading short-term gains for more negative longer-term strategic consequences,” the report says.

The Obama administration has acknowledged the deaths of four U.S. citizens in drone strikes. Anwar ak-Awlaki, an American citizen and radical Muslim cleric killed in 2010, was the only one intentionally targeted.

“We do not believe it is consistent with American values for the United States to carry on a broad, multi-year program of targeted strikes in which the United States has acknowledged only the deaths of four US citizens, despite clear evidence that several thousand others have also been killed,” the report says.

This post has been updated.