There's no question that U.S. drones have served a beneficial purpose in prosecuting the war against al-Qaeda, but there have long been two worrisome trends associated with drone strikes. The first is the target list: it appears to be much broader than simply al-Qaeda's top leaders. The second is the executive branch secrecy and assumption of broad powers to kill people, including American citizens, at will.
A new report in the New York Times sheds a bit more light on the issue:
But by many accounts, there has been a significant shift in the nature of the targets. In the early years, most strikes were aimed at ranking leaders of Al Qaeda thought to be plotting to attack the United States. That is the purpose Mr. Obama has emphasized, saying in a CNN interview in September that drones were used to prevent “an operational plot against the United States” and counter “terrorist networks that target the United States.”
But for at least two years in Pakistan, partly because of the C.I.A.’s success in decimating Al Qaeda’s top ranks, most strikes have been directed at militants whose main battle is with the Pakistani authorities or who fight with the Taliban against American troops in Afghanistan.
In Yemen, some strikes apparently launched by the United States killed militants who were preparing to attack Yemeni military forces. Some of those killed were wearing suicide vests, according to Yemeni news reports.
“Unless they were about to get on a flight to New York to conduct an attack, they were not an imminent threat to the United States,” said Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who is a critic of the strikes. “We don’t say that we’re the counterinsurgency air force of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, but we are.”
Of course, since the administration will only discuss the drone program through self-serving, mostly anonymous leaks, it's literally impossible to judge anything that's written about it. However, taking the New York Times report at face value, it does appear that the administration has unleashed drones on a wider set of targets than seems justified given the threat.
Among the problems with serving as a "counterinsurgency air force" for countries like Pakistan or Yemen is that it makes yet another series of enemies for the U.S. Part of the problem likely stems from the co-mingling of terrorist groups and local insurgencies, but the U.S. shouldn't put its weapons in the service of foreign countries with dubious human rights records unless there is a clear danger to the United States.