Drone warfare and “just war”

To the mattresses.

The US is enlarging its Middle East basing posture for unmanned aerial (autonomous) vehicles – UAVs, or in popular parlance, drones.  In addition to a long-operated base in Djibouti, where we maintain the headquarters of the Joint Task Force, Horn of Africa (JTF-HOA), drones will be based in the Seychelles, Ethiopia, and an unnamed nation on the Arabian Peninsula (possibly Yemen).

Bill Roggio at Long War Journal is concerned about our increasing reliance on drones.  So am I.  I concur with his reservations expressed here (don’t miss his whole piece, well worth reading):

The “drones” are an excellent tactic to keep al Qaeda and allied groups off balance, but their use is not a substitute for denying terrorists from physically holding ground. Despite eight years of Predator strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas, the Taliban remain firmly in control of the region.

He’s right.  Our drone attacks in Somalia have made no difference to the situation on the ground either (or in Yemen, for that matter).  And that’s important.

It is a new and different kind of “warfare” that sets up sniper perches on the territory of others and simply goes on picking people off, year after year, without transforming the conditions that make the “war” necessary.  No, we can’t invade and regime-change every nation that terrorists use as bases.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t owe ourselves a strategy check – and frankly, a morality and precedent check – on what we have chosen to do instead.

One of the first questions – a pragmatic question – is whether we consider it a good precedent to expand and normalize the practice of drone assassinations (or other drone attacks).  We’re not the only nation with really smart drones.  Other nations are going to have more and more of them.  Drones’ capabilities don’t require especially advanced computing any more, and the airframes are cheap.  If we launch drones from Ethiopia, why should Iran not launch them from Eritrea?

To use this kind of force, the implication is that you don’t need to have a traditional-warfare justification.  Alternatively, you could say that this kind of force – drone-targeting; anti-personnel tactics untethered to the idea of securing a “better peace” – is now a way war can be defined.

In either case, these suppositions raise questions in terms of the Geneva Conventions and the law of armed conflict.  More fundamentally, they raise questions as to what we are, in effect, doing.  It’s one thing if drones are used as an adjunct to an overarching strategy of closing in on militant jihadism by denying it territory and transforming the political conditions in which it has thrived.  But it’s something else when drones become the go-to tool, for a go-to method of simply killing as many jihadis as possible.

The latter model begins to resemble the methods of guerrilleros and the bloody conflicts of crime syndicates.  What those models presuppose is the absence of a possibility of strategic resolution:  a felt need to keep killing because, when baseline conditions aren’t expected to change, it’s the only option for harassing, culling, and deterring the enemy pack.  Is that the light in which we see this “war on terror” conflict?

Classical guerrillas dedicate themselves to perpetual insurgency, not just because they think it’s exciting but because they lack a vision for victory and resolution, and they lack the means to bring those things about.  Guerrillas can be useful in a campaign directed by a commander with a strategy and traditional firepower, but in the absence of that ability to concentrate force and achieve big objectives, they remain in the role of antagonists, always operating “against” the existing order.

Crime syndicates, meanwhile, fight among themselves on the understanding that they may kill each other and intimidate populations, but the ultimate resolution, in terms of who is in charge and what national idea a territory will be claimed by, is not up to them.

Accountable nations fighting to win – fighting for what B.H. Liddell-Hart called a “better peace” – fight differently.  Their objective is not to kill as many people as possible but to transform the conditions of people on the territory they inhabit.  Bill Roggio is right:  if you don’t transform what’s going on on territory, the important things – the things that produced the need to fight in the first place – will not change.  That transformation need not involve forcibly changing foreign regimes, but it unquestionably involves changing foreign regimes’ will and intentions.

When the GWOT was launched, the Bush administration had that as a key objective.  Along with a host of new agreements and cooperative programs with Muslim nations, significant transformation was achieved in Iraq.  It is not clear today that the gains there will be sustained, with the drawdown of US troops.

Meanwhile, NATO has been engaged in a perilous holding action in Afghanistan for the last 5-6 years, and the regional strategic conditions there are now worse, on balance, than they were in 2006.  Cooperation with Pakistan has seriously deteriorated, and NATO security operations in Afghanistan are failing to deter bold, broad-scale attacks by the Taliban, like the 22-hour firefight at the US embassy and NATO facility in Kabul last week.

Under these conditions – and in the absence of policy statements – what we are ramping up as opposed to drawing down (or looking dithery and ambivalent about) is the key to our posture and intentions.  And what we are ramping up is our drone profile in the Horn of Africa.

Yet we can never achieve the condition we desire – a condition in which we do not have to fight Islamist militants – by killing lots of them with drone attacks.  The method doesn’t match the implied objective.

This doesn’t mean drone attacks are inherently useless or even immoral, but it does mean that their utility and moral justification depend on their being used in the service of a justifiable strategic objective.  If we aren’t interested in consolidating the gains made for security and peace in Iraq, and if we are only looking to use Afghanistan as a sniper perch for as long as we can, do we have a justifiable strategic objective anymore?  Are we fighting for a better peace?

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.

22 thoughts on “Drone warfare and “just war””

  1. J.E., what would you do? Should we try to hold ground in Pakistan, Somalia/Yemen?
    What is the correct strategy to stop terrorists from entering and operating from countries that welcome them without boots on the ground?
    Money to buy people off doesn’t work as well as it use to when terrorists are funded by people with lots of money.
    We in the west are fighting the 7th century.
    Transforming the Middle East is biting off a bit of a big piece. I have a dark outlook on Islamic Fundamentalism. There is an un-ending supply of very poor, un-educated,superstitious cannon fodder in that part of the world.
    My son is 16. He will read, observe, and think about this very problem when he is 65.

    I do not think simply killing terrorist is enough. Kill them, their spnsors, synpathisers, and the money people.

    1. Okay, spell check update will be down loaded today.
      By the way, my comments sound like Fuster without the personal attacks.

      1. they do sound that way a bit, reed.

        I wish your son good luck and hope that things slowly improve and he has many happier things to ponder. my own son has spent far too much of his working life considering this stuff and discussion with David Petraeus has convinced him that it will require many more years than this generation of Americans wishes to acknowledge.

        (and your personal attacks are pretty sub-par. practice doesn’t always prove availing.)

  2. Good piece, opticon.

    The situation in Afghanistan ain’t good and is tied to Pakistan. We can’t expect all that much without large-scale change in Pakistan.

  3. “Bill Roggio is right: if you don’t transform what’s going on on territory, the important things – the things that produced the need to fight in the first place – will not change. That transformation need not involve forcibly changing foreign regimes, but it unquestionably involves changing foreign regimes’ will and intentions.” TOC
    “What is the correct strategy to stop terrorists from entering and operating from countries that welcome them without boots on the ground? …I do not think simply killing terrorist is enough. Kill them, their spnsors, synpathisers, and the money people.” wreed

    These two comments get to the heart of our dysfunctional WOT policies.
    There is great ignorance and much willful denial in considering the true extent of the problem. The roots that make up the ‘tree’ of Islamic terrorism extend far beyond the terrorists, Madrases, and Saudi financiers.

    “First the context:

    Islamic Terrorism is a world-wide radical religious philosophy absolutely dedicated to the destruction of Western values and institutions. It is a ‘clash of civilizations’ only in that individual freedom, democracy and separation of church and state are seen by Fundamentalist Radical Islamics as a direct and permanent threat to traditional Islamic values.

    One that in a modern world of Television, the Internet, cultural interchange and the ability to rapidly travel to other parts of the world dooms ‘first wave*’ Islamic societies to cultural assimilation by the west if interacting freely with ‘third wave*’ information societies in the West and East is allowed to continue.

    Now the structural make-up:

    The phenomenon of Islamic Terrorism is threefold in nature. This is absolutely necessary to a full understanding of the threat it represents to Western values, institutions and societies.

    The threefold nature of Islamic Terrorism consists of:

    1.) Various ideologically disparate terror networks. Ideologically fueled by hate-filled radical Fundamentalist Islamic Imams & Mullahs operating out of state-funded madras’s.

    These hate filled Imam’s are key and they ARE promoting an interpretation of Islam that IS inherent to the religion.

    Apologists attempt to deny this observation by pointing to the earlier, Medina part of the Koran’s tolerant verses. But in the later ‘Meccan’ passages, the Koran contains many, many calls to jihad against ALL unbelievers until the entire world is under the control of Islam. And by long established precedent, the later passages supersede the earlier passages. Which is why Islam itself is fundamentally incompatible with our democratic values.

    2.) The Rogue nations who use these networks as ‘stealth’ quasi-military arms of aggression in a struggle with other nations to ensure the furtherance of their national goals and agenda. (Iran, Syria, N. Korea)

    3.) The ‘enabling’ status-quo nations, who out of short-term national self-interest, block as much as possible any effective actions against the Rogue nations, especially in the U.N. (Russia, China, E.U. nations)

    It is impossible to defeat the terror networks without defeating the rogue nations (and it is impossible to defeat the rogue nations without substantially limiting the enabling nations protections of the rogue nations). Either dissuading them from further support, as in Libya’s case or through direct overthrow and destruction of the underlying social structures that support terrorism within these nations. (As will eventually be the case with Iran.)

    It is imperative that the ‘enabling’ nations, primarily Russia, China and much of the EU be dealt with in an appropriate manner. Direct confrontation is neither desirable nor practical. We must essentially ‘sideline’ them through adroit diplomatic, financial and economic maneuvering. Bush tried that but the Mainstream Media effectively undermined support for that course of action.

    It is imperative to recognize that the leadership of the enabling nations are NOT our friends. But in fact are actively opposed to our interests.

    * Refers to Alvin Toffler’s ‘wave’ theory of societal progression; The Agricultural, Industrial and Informational waves of historical dynamics and the resultant societies representative of those historical transitions. Islamic societies are fundamentally tribal, ’First’ wave societies. The US is the foremost example of a formerly ‘Second’ wave society transitioning into a ‘Third’ wave society. This is why conventional thinking regarding the desirability & possibility of a return or resurgence of manufacturing in the US is mistaken. Robotic manufacturing will greatly increase once artificial intelligence (AI) reaches a ‘tipping point’ but human factory workers en mass is history.

    1. Geoffrey, first it’s not really world-wide in any significant way. Africa and the ME and South Asia there are significant numbers. Other places not so much. Philippines and Indonesia have pockets and might grow but might not.

      “It is imperative that the ‘enabling’ nations, primarily Russia, China …’

      formerly enabling Geoffrey. not so much these days as they face more of a direct threat from it than does the US. these days they just dabble when it seems to offer a short-term advantage.

      but it’s good that you point out that these two countries aren’t really good friends to us…. because most Americans don’t suspect as much.

      you ask them who are our traditional friends and our best friends now
      and if they don’t say Botswana or the Holy Roman Empire, danged if they don’t come right back saying China or Russia. It all stems from the fact that Americans love Chairman Mao and Uncle Joe Stalin.

      1. “It is imperative that the ‘enabling’ nations, primarily Russia, China …’

        “formerly enabling Geoffrey. not so much these days as they face more of a direct threat from it than does the US. these days they just dabble when it seems to offer a short-term advantage.”

        Russia and China continue to block, in the UN, any effective sanctions against Iran, Syria, N. Korea, etc. That is highly significant and an effective deterrent against any truly effective economic sanctions being imposed against those nations.

        Russia continues to oppose us on multiple fronts and issues. China is, as TOC has profiled, increasing its naval influence not only in the South China seas but in the Mediterranean as well.

        In the ‘Great Game’ of geopolitical maneuvers, as in chess, in the ‘middle game’ there often appears to be little happening, until in the end game when the inevitability of ones sides loss is often obvious to all but few see the preparatory moves during the critical middle game.

        1. Geoffrey, how many rounds of sanctions have we imposed on Iran? Did either Russia or China block the last round which IS effective?

          …and BTW, North Korea really isn’t ruled by radical Islamist revolutionaries.

          Yes, Russia and China oppose us on several things and oddly, believe that the governments of Russia and China should pursue the interests of the governments of Russia and China rather than the interests of the US.

          Of course, you and I remember when it was different and the US could count on Stalin and Mao to always want to please us.

          1. Your sarcasm in mentioning Stalin and Mao is ill placed fuster. The governments they headed were a threat and only by taking them seriously were we able to contain the threat.

            NO economic sanctions against Iran have been effective, they are pursuing nuclear arms full speed ahead.

            Russia is the PRIMARY facilitator of Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capability. Putin has announced that Russia will assist Chavez in pursuing nuclear capabilities. There are several other countries whose governments are inimical to US interests who are in negotiations with Russia for assistance in gaining nuclear capability. Russia, under Putin is actively facilitating nuclear proliferation to both rogue nations and unstable third world countries.

            Those are hardly the actions of a government pursuing mere self-interests not aligned with ours but rather an active, covert strategy designed to emplace multiple future nuclear threats against the US.

            N. Korea is unapologetically communist (old-school) and adamantly opposed to the US. They are a threat and anyone who thinks that they may be dismissed has their head firmly planted ‘where the sun don’t shine’.

            These are just some of the primary factors in the ‘middle game’ to which I referred and in 5 more years when the threats are undeniable, being able to say “I told you so” won’t matter a damn bit.

            1. The last round of sanctions is effective and only by defining “effective” as excluding everything other causing the Iranian to publicly abandon the weapons program to which they’ve committed can you say that they’re not.

              The sanctions are hurting the Iranian economy deeply and they’re gonna prove unbearable if they stay in place and remain honored.

              Russia is not the primary facilitator for Iran. That honor goes to Pakistan and AQ Khan and co.

              The Russians may say that they’re gonna provide Chavez with almost anything, but it won’t really happen. Chavez is just a fool being parted from his money and soon to be parted from other things.

              Try naming one country who has received nukes from Putin’s Russia.

              North Korea can not be considered communist unless you’re using that term to mean an authoritarian dictatorship (seemingly a hereditary one) The Norks don’t have a place at the table when you’re talking about Islamism.
              Save the Norks for a discussion of the world’s most semi-successful crime families.Maybe get Al Pacino for the movie (although Kim Jong-Il may be the only part for which he’s too tall)

              1. “only by defining “effective” as excluding everything other causing the Iranian to publicly abandon the weapons program to which they’ve committed can you say that they’re not.”

                Since the sole purpose of the ‘sanctions’ is to compel Iran to abandon its pursuit of nuclear capability, failure to achieve that goal means that the sanctions must be classified as ineffective. To suggest otherwise is to engage in intellectual denial by insisting that an individual tree (factor) is of more importance than the forest (the larger and most fundamental issue).

                Without Russia’s centrifuges, all the info Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan provided is useless. Russia’s technological input and materials are absolutely vital and irreplaceable to Iran’s nuclear program.

                “The Russians may say that they’re gonna provide Chavez with almost anything, but it won’t really happen.”

                Perhaps not and Chavez’ days may be numbered but upon what empirical evidence do you base your claim that Russia is playing Chavez for a fool? They certainly don’t need Chavez’ money, Russia’s oil and natural gas revenues are providing plenty of money to Russia’s elite.

                Russia is party to the Nuclear non-proliferation treaty and providing Iran, et al with the materials and knowledge to create their own bombs, while claiming it to be a peaceful pursuit of nuclear electrical generation capacity is a neat though transparent end run around the treaty.

                N. Korea’s leadership (just below Kim Jong-Il ) is old-school communist. Dictators only survive with support from that level. Stalin was a dictator too but nevertheless Stalin’s Soviet Union was fully communist.

              2. the sole purpose isn’t to stop the program, Geoffrey.
                the sanctions is to make it very costly to continue the program, to cripple an already weak economy and to deepen Iran’s isolation and slap an outlaw tag on their regime and legitimize the next step to be taken against it.

  4. It does look as if we are, by our reliance on drone attacks, becoming evermore fixated on swatting mosquitoes and forgetting the hard necessity of draining the swamps.

    1. No immediate draining is possible. It’s gonna take decades to fully drain it after spending a couple of decades ignoring it because our oil suppliers in Saudi Arabia were doing most all the spreading until the Iranians joined in.

      We did respond forcefully to the Iranians, however. As soon as they released all those hostages, we sent them a real nice bible and a real nice six-shooter…..and cake.
      We they took some more Americans hostage, we responded by shipping weaponry to them

  5. I do not think adroit dipomacy and draining the swamp will suffice. The baseline response, while facing a mortal enemy, is steely resolve and firm determination. Sophistry, interesting dialogue, thoughtful, informed insight will not be helpful when facing these folks.
    Killing terrorists, their teachers, mentors, masters and bankers will not solve the problem. It does tend to keep them at bay a bit. That is a start.
    We are not going to change the Islamic world. I suppose we could
    ship a million Unitarians to the Middle East to set up schools to compete with the Imans.
    The core problem is: Islam has a very large (and growing) customer base. Ignorance, extreme poverty,fear, hopelessness are fertile grounds for Dark Ages recruiting.
    Containment is really what we are speaking of here.
    The bottom line is oil. The Middle east was a poverty stricken, hopeless place before oil. It will return to that position when oil becomes less important.
    That will be a long time my friends for many basic economic realities.
    There will be books written in the 22nd century concerning the Trillions of petro dollars earned by Arab countries. They blew it all on Dark Ages superstition. Oh yes, they will need handouts from the west for basic needs. More prayer mats.
    By the way, the Jews will be doing nicely thank you very much.
    Best regards to everyone.

  6. wreed, I’ve been owing you a response. It’s always an operation of great care to make the case about drone overreliance, because making that case doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use them,doesn’t mean they aren’t useful, and doesn’t mean we shouldn’t kill terrorists or that it’s immoral in se to kill terrorists.

    The point about the longevity of Islamist extremism is a good one, and GB has expounded on that to excellent effect. But people made a very similar point about Marxist-socialist collectivism 50 years ago (and 40, and even 30). In both cases, we have to separate the kinds of manifestations we’re talking about, because they have different implications and indicate different approaches.

    Marxism made runs at us in different forms, and frankly is still doing so. When it got hold of nations and armies, one of the most important methods of opposing it was with armed intimidation, up to and including hot war and the killing of armed opponents.

    When Marxism was coming after us through our school system, our labor unions, or the fictional themes of Hollywood, there was no utility in killing the Communists or useful idiots involved, and it would have been highly immoral to do so.

    Likewise — and here is where the analogy is important to the current discussion — when we could attack Marxism through the outlines of nation-state power, it was most useful and important to do THAT: to approach the problem of Marxism using the highest-payoff method, and one that was our forte. Marxism depended on ruling the peoples of nation-states. The best approach was to interfere with its opportunities to do that. Killing lots and lots of Marxists was quite possible, but besides the question of morality, it simply wouldn’t have done as much good as attacking Marxism where we could hurt it the most: through showing it weak and undesirable as an organizing principle for the nation-state.

    We spent most of the Cold War talking ourselves out of doing that in a focused way, but on the rare occasions when we did (see Reagan), the method kicked butt.

    With Islamism, our problem in 2001 was state-sponsored jihadis. It did a lot more good to attack the sponsoring states than it will ever do to just kill a lot of jihadis.

    In 2011, our problem is being transformed before our eyes from transnational jihadism to single-state-oriented Islamism. Iran has always been there as an example of the latter, but nobody else wants to be Iran. The Arab Spring has given us at least one major state — Egypt — in which there will be increasingly urgent experimentation in state-based jihad in the next few years. Libya under Qaddhafi will look like Panhandle State next to the Sooners, in terms of what an Islamist Egypt — with 80 million people from an urban-agricultural tradition as opposed to desert nomadism — can accomplish in the annals of Islamist radicalism.

    But Libya could be another fresh experiment in state-based jihad. We don’t know yet which way Syria will go, but the possibility exists there as well, although Turkey is doing her best to influence that outcome. Erdogan is pushing toward his own neo-Ottoman version of state-based jihad, and the outcome in Syria will be a triumph for either his vision or that of Iran.

    Pakistan — non-Arab, of course — is a special problem of her own, but the rule applies to Pakistan as well. If we want to give Islamism a bad name and discourage state-Islamists from thinking they’ve got a good idea, we need to use the highest-payoff approach. That approach is based on being the strong horse among nation-states.

    We are doing the exact opposite of what we should be doing: killing lots of jihadis while losing the cooperation and respect of Pakistan. The top 100 officials in Pakistan can organize a lot more to hurt us with than all the jihadis walking the earth today. Jihadi cells can plant bombs, but Pakistan can deny us the southern NATO supply routes (check; already done three times since Obama took office); let China use her territory to build up a military presence in Central Asia (check; already happening); cooperate in Taliban attacks on us in AfPak (check; already happening); and more.

    Pakistan’s attitude should be one of not wanting to mess with us. It was, for a long time after the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. It no longer is. The problem itself is a very tough challenge; it’s not like there’s some simple, obvious thing Republicans can say Obama didn’t do, or Democrats can say Bush didn’t do. It isn’t that simple.

    But one thing the Obama administration has done that has been very damaging is send the uninterrupted signal that it wants out as quickly as possible, no matter what the situation is on the ground, and that its purpose in AfPak is basically to use the two nations’ territory as a sniper perch, with no interest in how that affects the local governments.

    That posture wasn’t inevitable. Obama was presented with a different choice in the summer of 2009, and decided not to take it. He chose to go with the option of NOT securing Afghanistan and instead keeping just enough forces in theater to kill terrorists. Pakistan was never going to respect that choice. If Pakistan were to remain passive, her leaders would be consigned to reaping the evil consequences of the Obama approach. So the Pakistanis are maneuvering as they feel they have to, to shape the situation in Afghanistan — with which they have to live after we’re gone — and keep ahead of their own insurgencies and radicals.

    Nothing about our current situation was dictated to us. It’s possible to do other things; we were never stuck with the sniper-perch-for-jihadis strategy. (Labeled the Biden strategy within the administration, BTW, because Biden was its main proponent in late 2009-early 2010.) It’s because we have other options that would achieve more useful results that I regard overreliance on drones with such disfavor.

    The nation-state isn’t the appropriate vehicle through which to convince jihadis that God isn’t Allah and Mohammed wasn’t His prophet. But it’s exactly the right vehicle through which to convince Islamists that there is no future in trying to rule peoples with sharia, and trying to establish a new caliphate and put “Allah’s Shadow on Earth” on the personalized license plate. The way to do that is to be the strongest horse in the traditional nation-state sense, such as how competently we employ force and how effectively we negotiate. Sadly, these are areas of profound weakness for Obama. With all Bush’s faults, he looks like a cross between Otto von Bismarck and Cardinal Richelieu compared to Obama.

    1. Thats what I call a response!!!!!!!
      I fear the comparison of Islam to Marxism is flawed. Marxists are new kids on the block. Islam has about 20 centuries give or take.
      The empirical evidence of Marixms failure in real everday life has thinned out the true believers.
      The jihadis aren’t about to let any facts get in the way. When death and destruction seem to be so attractive, clear, concise, arguments fall by the wayside. Even self interest has no bearing to the True Believer.
      These folks are a lot closer to the Mau Mau tradition than to intellectual smarty pants.
      The Pakistan problem seems to be intractable. There are so many facets,dynamics,compartments, etc.
      I am slowly (over many years) coming to the conclusion that we get a lot closer to the Indians. They make a pretty effective counter weight.
      Your comments about Pakistans concerns with Afganistan are spot on of course.
      I have had a feeling for years. It puts me a Stalins’ table. India should never have provided land for the state of Pakistan. I understand the horror was too great to bear. But there it is.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: