More than 300 drone strikes have been carried out by the Obama administration, with an estimated 2,500 people killed. With every attack, the administration runs a risk of creating more terrorists, especially if the justification for the strike is weak. Minimizing the resentment created from such attacks should be the main guiding principle for the way drone strikes will be carried out in the future.
Obama and his advisers continue to debate the conditions under which a drone strike should be authorized, with the Department of Defense and CIA arguing for greater leeway, and the Justice and State Departments championing more restrictive rules.
Thus far, the justification for such strikes are that they are acceptable under international law, namely under just war theory. They are proportional in terms of impact, do not target non-combatants, and are a preemptive strike against individuals that pose an imminent danger to the U.S. and its national security.
The distinct lines the administration once purported to draw have become blurred in recent times. The strikes clearly targeted top-ranking Al-Qaeda leaders in the early years, but nowadays more are deployed against militants who are pro-Taliban, or in remote areas of Yemen where Al-Qaeda splinter cells thrive. Such individuals tend to target the governments in their region, and hardly pose the imminent threat that just war theory requires for a preemptive strike against them.
Applying just war theories can be problematic in dealing with non-conventional threats like terrorists. While it was easy for just war theorists of conventional armed conflict to differentiate between combatants and civilians based on whether they were uniformed, it is much more difficult to apply this standard for terrorists, many of whom need to blend in with their surroundings to avoid detection. There are also varying degrees of involvement in terrorist organizations — some individuals are financial contributors, some are active combatants, some engineers of weaponry, and others merely sympathizers. The administration would need to consider in depth what degree of involvement an individual would have to fulfill to be considered an imminent threat to U.S. national security.
As it stands, the strikes are still authorized on a case-by-case basis. Nevertheless, just war theory still can provide a clear guideline for the drone manual. To minimize the resentment that a strike can create, authorities should perhaps provide a warning sign before striking, allowing the enemy to surrender right before the strike. POWs should also be accorded rights if they surrender.
Authorities should continue to minimize the civilian casualties from the strikes, and confine their attacks only to top leaders of terrorist organizations that openly declare war against the U.S. More importantly, the administration should go beyond codifying the principles to justify an attack, and further explore the conduct of agencies during and after a drone strike to minimize resentment from the attack.
The administration can hold on to just war principles as a guideline for choosing its targets, but it needs to flesh out in greater detail how involved an individual must be in the terrorist organization to be considered a threat, and what to do during and after a drone strike. As it currently stands, it is preferable to follow the advice of the State and Justice departments and err on the side of caution, rather than to create more resentment arising from a wrongful strike.