2.1 The Issue
Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, combating terrorist organizations has become a core concern of U.S. foreign policy. This has led the United States to conduct operations against terrorist and militant groups around the world, both through designated military conflicts—as in Afghanistan and Iraq—and by conducting operations beyond the battlefield in countries with which the United States is not formally at war, including Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen.
The United States has used various tools to pursue al-Qaeda, the Haqqani network, the self-proclaimed Islamic State, and other terrorist and militant groups. One of the most controversial of these tools has been drone strikes. Drones, officially known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are aircraft that can be armed with deadly missiles to conduct targeted killings, precision strikes against members of terrorist organizations. Because they are unmanned—in other words, they do not have a pilot on board—drones do not put American pilots’ lives at risk and can carry out extremely precise attacks against specific targets, making them an attractive tool for a variety of military operations. But critics argue that drone strikes can also unintentionally kill civilians alongside targets and can tarnish the U.S. image overseas. Drone strikes, especially in non-battlefield countries, have put considerable strain on U.S. diplomatic relationships and counterterrorism cooperation with other countries. U.S. drone practices have been condemned by foreign governments as a violation of their sovereignty, sparked public protests both at home and abroad, and drawn sharp criticism from human rights organizations over the legality and ethics of drone strikes.