Barack Obama, Lord of the Skies
The war in Iraq is officially over, with only a token US military presence left in the country. The war in Afghanistan is drawing down. But as the two ground wars the US has been waging cool down, a mysterious and barely-acknowledged third front is heating up. The drone war is in full swing, targeting al-Qaeda leaders and operatives with devastating results.
President Obama has expanded his air forces massively. According to the Congressional Budget Office numbers, the US military and CIA had 775 drones at their disposal as of the fall of 2011, with hundreds more already under construction. While strengthening the counterterrorism air force, President Obama has also authorized the use of a secret air base in the Arabian Peninsula, in addition to the drone base in Djibouti. These new bases have given the US drone fleets more range and opportunity in their attacks as they take off to target located Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders.
Three years into his term, the results are irrefutable. Twenty-two major al-Qaeda operatives have been killed since January 2009. Of these terrorist leaders, twenty-one were poached from the skies. The only al-Qaeda leader of the fallen twenty-two who was not the victim of a drone attack was Osama bin Laden. The Obama administration and CIA operatives discussed the possibility of launching a drone attack on the house they suspected the terrorist fugitive was living in, but it was decided that a drone attack might destroy the bodies of its targets and put the success or failure of the mission in doubt. To be completely sure of having rid the world of bin Laden, a body would be needed, and two helicopters bearing an elite US fighting force were sent in instead. The decision paid off in spades; along with the terror leader’s body, his laptop and several al-Qaeda documents were seized, resulting in a treasure trove of new intelligence.
Drones were necessary to take out the man who would replace bin Laden as No. 1 in the terror network. On September 30, 2011, Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in a strike involving three drones in Yemen. Two of the drones pointed their aiming lasers at Awlaki’s speeding vehicle while the third drone circled the scene to make sure that no citizens who could become collateral damage were nearby. The drones took out Anwar al-Awlaki and his companions, and for the second time in less than four months al-Qaeda needed to find a new leader.
It’s unclear if the network has found one. Al-Qaeda is facing a leadership crisis, and reports at the pentagon describe the organization as being “at the brink of collapse.” The problem for them is that so many of their high-ranking, influential operatives have been selectively pinpointed and taken out by drone attacks that the group is starting to splinter. Without leadership to organize and carry out attacks, al-Qaeda’s ability to harm US citizens could be completely taken off the table.
“Who would have thought in 2008,” Jon Stewart recently asked his viewers, “That Barack Obama’s administration would stand out for his ability to rain death and destruction on America’s enemies from the sky?” The aggression and determination shown by his authorizations of strikes doesn’t fit the foreign policy mold that is usually given to Democratic Presidents. The man who rose to prominence thanks in part to an anti-war speech in 2002, now a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate who has wrapped up one Middle Eastern war and intensified another has put an increasingly scattered and leaderless al-Qaeda on the defensive. As President Obama and his national security team flew their new and growing aerial power, terrorists and Taliban militants inspect the sky for flecks of metal.
The rise of drones in counterterrorism efforts has been highly successful but also highly controversial. The drone program is so classified that many aspects of it are still unknown outside of the ciricles of US intelligence, a feature that has confounded efforts by Congress to oversee the military operations. It is also known that there have been innocent civilian victims in drone strikes that strain relations with America and her allies.
Opponents of the drone strikes can be comforted in the knowledge that they will be winded down as the United States runs out of terrorist leaders to target and Afghanistan continues to stabilize as Taliban leaders and militias are routed by pilotless aircraft and supporting Allied ground forces. In the meantime, the results of the drone attacks are hopeful signs that the Obama administration is on the verge of dealing al-Qaeda a knock-out blow.