US Foreign Policy

The Long Shadow of 9/11 on Decisions to Use Lethal Force

Since 9/11 the United States has assumed broad authority to lethally target people around the world in perpetuity and in secret, with limited oversight, and even more limited accountability

September 11th, 2001 changed how the United States conceptualized and conducted counterterrorism for a generation. In the aftermath of the attacks, President George W. Bush vowed that the United States would fight “…until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated” – thereby ushering in a new era of national security, of prolonged conflict and expansive decisions to use lethal force, including through remote means and under opaque justifications. A lethal U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2002 operationalized, for the first time, the development and sustainment of an exceptional program for using lethal force against perceived threats outside widely recognized war zones. Twenty years after 9/11, that exception is at increasing risk of becoming the rule, in which the United States assumes broad authorities to lethally target people around the world seemingly in perpetuity and in secret, with limited oversight, and with even more limited accountability.

The U.S. program of conducting lethal airstrikes against individuals suspected of terrorism has posed significant legal and strategic questions relating to U.S. use of force outside war zones, the ways in which U.S. strikes have led to civilian harm, the unique challenges posed by the global proliferation of weapons technologies such as armed drones that enable such operations, the difficulties in regulating emergent technologies, and the damaging effects of secrecy on democracy, accountability, and the rule of law.

Stimson’s report A New Agenda for US Drone Policy and the Use of Lethal Force examines the evolution and the problematic international precedent for using lethal force that the United States has set over the last twenty years. The report documents the current status of the U.S. lethal strikes program – reflecting on the legal and policy frameworks used by the last three presidential administrations to conduct airstrikes in countries where the United States is not at war. The report reflects on the long shadow cast by the September 11th attacks, particularly on the prioritization of counterterrorism and on the ways in which the United States engages with the world. What results is a survey of the consequences of the permissive use of force and the need to reevaluate and refocus the United States’ approach.

There are several actions that the Biden administration can take now to alter course and end the “forever wars.” The administration should start with a comprehensive strategic analysis and review of the U.S. drone program and use of lethal force against people suspected of terrorism – and publish the findings of the study publicly. To our knowledge, the White House has yet to conduct such a review and evaluate the impact of past strikes not only on terrorist networks, but on national security policy, cooperation with partners and allies, public opinion, and, crucially, affected communities. Such a public accounting of U.S. activities is important in order to ascertain the efficacy, legitimacy, and consequences of the U.S. approach. The review should include both an assessment of global drone posture in order to identify elements of the underlying infrastructure that can influence operational decisions and a comparative analysis of alternative tools to address the challenges posed by terrorist threats to the United States.

Moreover, the administration should continue to work with Congress to repeal not only the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), but the 2001 AUMF as well. Both the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs have been used to rationalize the expansive use of lethal force beyond their original remit. Indeed, many of the groups the United States has taken action against over the last 20 years did not exist when the AUMFs were passed. Furthermore, the operational entanglements in many countries where the United States conducts lethal counterterrorism operations have evolved in recent years, begging the question as to whether the current U.S. approach aligns with – or perhaps exacerbates – realities on the ground. In working to repeal the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs, it will be important for the Biden administration to ensure that any potentially new AUMF contains vital safeguards to constrain the use of force temporally, geographically, and strategically in terms of specifying the mission and targets.

Ultimately, the Biden administration should develop a strategy that appropriately situates counterterrorism among other pressing security priorities and is relevant to the world today. As events over the last year and a half have made all too clear, it is crucial that the United States reorient its national security policies away from a primacy on counterterrorism and towards more pressing threats and global security challenges.

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