Drone Creep and the Rumsfeld Question
My first piece for The New Republic, “Why the Obama Administration’s Drone War May Soon Reach a Tipping Point,” is up. There’s a lot of pieces to it, making excerpting difficult, but here’s a taste:
In a speech Monday at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, John Brennan, President Obama’s counter-terrorism advisor, made a forthright defense of the drone war currently being conducted against Islamic militants in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. “As a result of our efforts,” he declared, “the United States is more secure and the American people are safer.” Brennan’s argument deserves credit for its boldness. Unfortunately, however, there’s good reason to doubt its veracity.
In a now-famous October 2003 memo, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reasonably figured that the key question in determining whether “we are winning or losing the global war on terror” was “Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?”
But there are already signs that the drone campaign there is producing a backlash: Toronto Star national security reporter Michelle Shepard recently highlighted the effects of an infamous December 2009 strike in Abyan province that killed 55, including 14 women and 21 children. Shepard quotes a Yemeni analyst, Abdul Ghani al-Iryani, who attributes the rise of Ansar al Sharia, a key AQAP ally, directly to the outrage over that incident. “Of the thousands of Ansar al Sharia now fighting in Abyan, the majority were not al Qaeda; they were angered by what they saw as American aggression,” Iryani said, calling it “one event that radicalized an entire [province].”
There’s every reason to think the same is true in Pakistan, where the shaky alliance between Washington and Islamabad has been pushed to the point of breaking. CNN terrorism expert Peter Bergen noted last summer that, “On average, only one out of every seven U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan kills a militant leader. The majority of those killed in such strikes are not important insurgent commanders but rather low-level fighters, together with a small number of civilians. In total, according to our analysis, less than two percent of those killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have been described in reliable press accounts as leaders of al Qaeda or allied groups.” This has clearly taken a toll on public opinion. A major survey conducted in Pakistan by the New America Foundation found that “nearly nine out every ten people in FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] oppose the U.S. military pursuing al-Qaeda and the Taliban in their region” and that “the intensity of opposition to the American military is high. While only one in ten of FATA residents think suicide attacks are often or sometimes justified against the Pakistani military and police, almost six in ten believe these attacks are justified against the U.S. military.”
I should note that, while Brennan’s speech and recent announcement of policy changes are the news hook for this, this is a logical, perhaps even inevitable creep in a longstanding practice. Targeting potential bad guys with unmanned drones with high resolution is awfully tempting. Doing so for top tier leaders is a no-brainer. Drawing the line, though, is hard, and it’s not at all clear one still exists.
UPDATE: For those who aren’t longtime readers, it’s worth noting, too, that this isn’t some new concern on my part conveniently timed to an election year with a Democratic incumbent. See my August 2007 piece “Lawfare Amid Warfare.”
The bottom line is that, whatever international law might allow, any innocent casualties in a counterinsurgency – counterterrorist – counterguerrilla – stability and security operation presents the enemy with a propaganda advantage.
Perhaps because he is an Air Force officer, it seems not to occur to General Dunlap that we can simultaneously “kill bad guys when the opportunity presents itself” and protect innocents by choosing a means of attack other than an air strike. Sending in a commando team can achieve both ends, owing to the more precise nature of that attack. Obviously, commandos are also more vulnerable than bomber pilots. But, as Michael Walzer and others have argued, soldiers have a duty to protect innocent lives even though it means accepting greater personal risks.
Air power, including missile strikes, are oftentimes much more effective than ground attacks. Certainly, countless thousand American soldiers and Marines lived to fight another day because of the invaluable contribution made by military aviation. That said, it has little application in COIN/SASO, where the target set is almost invariably tiny and surrounded by noncombatants.
It’s an alarm I’ve sounded many times over the years, although I do think we’ve escalated to an even more alarming level.