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Drone Warfare and the Superpower’s Dilemma (Part 2)

[Image source: The Economist] [Image source: The Economist]

This is Part 2 of a two-part article. To access Part 1, click here.

Historically, the risks of soldier death and injury were ineluctable features of war, and served sometimes to limit or force an end to wars. Risks to soldiers’ lives were altered (but not eliminated) long before the appearance of drones through the development of increasingly long-range weapons. For Americans, the Vietnam War, at the time the longest overseas armed conflict, was a major turning point in terms of the politics of risk and sacrifice. For one thing, the war ended without victory; the phrase “Vietnam syndrome” became a popular way of describing the American public’s antipathy to the blood sacrifices of war—especially a war of choice, as many came to see Vietnam.

In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, military conscription was replaced by enlistment. The ostensible volunteerism of enlistment shifted the discourse about military service to individual choice. But dead soldiers would remain a political problem for war-makers. Indeed, during what was intended to be a snatch-and-grab mission to capture two individuals in the Somalian capital of Mogadishu in October 1993, two Black Hawk helicopters carrying Special Forces were shot down. The subsequent mission to rescue the crews resulted in the longest firefight since Vietnam. Eighteen soldiers were killed and more than seventy were badly wounded. This event spurred the coining of “Black Hawk down syndrome” to describe an antipathy to military interventions not directly or persuasively related to national security.  

Following the Somalia debacle, the Pentagon embraced a more riskless military strategy of high-altitude bombing. The 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo was conducted almost entirely from the air which negated the risk of combat death. Surveillance drones provided targeting information, and the bombing was done by conventional planes whose pilots were forbidden to fly below 15,000 feet in order to stay out of range of surface-to-air missiles. Not a single US soldier died in the Kosovo intervention.

High-altitude bombing and drone warfare both enable the military to wage war with minimal risk to soldiers. But there are differences on this risk continuum. Fighter planes, no matter how high they fly, are manned and therefore present at least some chance that pilots can be killed, injured, or captured. Drones are piloted and fired remotely by operators located thousands of miles from their targets. While the use of drones does require boots on the ground for launching and maintenance, that ground can be a well-protected and distant military base rather than a battlefield in the literal sense. Consequently, the dronization of war sets the conditions for perpetual war because of the technology’s risklessness to US soldiers. This affects decision-making about where to strike and who to kill. Moreover, the availability of drones drives a kind of technological determinism that tempts decision-makers to stay in the fight until victory.

Now more than fourteen years into the “war on terror,” there have been some discrete victories. The original al-Qaeda leadership has been largely decimated, including a manned kill operation on 1 May 2011 in which Osama bin Laden was executed in the compound where he had been hiding in Abbottabad, Pakistan. But by no measure has the “war on terror” been won.

Under these circumstances, it should not be surprising that there are no significant voices inside the US political establishment advocating for an end to the “war on terror.” This is understandable given the desire to avoid another Vietnam—that is, another war that ends without achieving its strategic goals. Such an outcome would raise the almost unspeakable question (in domestic US politics) of whether the deaths and injuries of thousands of US soldiers had been in vain. What has been acknowledged is that an endless commitment of boots on the ground was untenable for a volunteer army and unpopular politically. The drawdown of US troops, first in Iraq and then Afghanistan, were not boasted as manifestations of military victories because nothing victorious resulted; both countries remain violent and unstable warscapes.

In terms of the larger strategic goals of degrading and destroying terrorist organizations, the “war on terror” has been a disaster. Terrorist violence has spiked since 2001. Organizations are multiplying and their recruitment and operational opportunities are on the rise in a region roiled by war and conflict. Therefore, the superpower’s dilemma—the ability to continue to fight without losing and the inability to stop without winning—function as a rationale for aerial interventions. Drone technology provides the “perfect” means to keep the war going and, as recent events demonstrate, spreading.

A New Intervention from the Sky

The fast rise of ISIS and its ability to capture and control vast swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria has presented the newest front in the “war on terror.” In 2014, the United States launched “Operation Inherent Resolve” and now leads a thirteen-country coalition against ISIS. Although the organization declared its autonomy from al-Qaeda in 2013, and its members have no direct connection to 9/11, the government relies on the 2001 AUMF to bomb them.

The campaign against ISIS is an almost entirely aerial intervention because President Obama has forbidden the thousands of US soldiers still in Iraq (as advisers to the Iraqi government) from getting close to the ISIS front in that country, and there are no boots on the ground in Syria (at least none that are publicly acknowledged). In Syria, the United States began striking ISIS targets with manned aircraft in August 2014. At that time, there were no drones available for Syria because they were tied up in Afghanistan. However, in August 2015, the United States conducted its first strikes by drones launched from the Incirlik air base in southern Turkey. In Iraq, the United States and its coalition allies have been engaged in an even more intense bombing campaign. Between 8 August 2014 and 30 August 2015, there were 6,548 airstrikes; sixty-two percent targeted ISIS in Iraq (4,080 strikes) and the remainder (2,468 strikes) in Syria. The United States carried out ninety-nine percent of all strikes in Syria.

More than any previous phase of the “war on terror,” in the campaign against ISIS drones have become a dominant technology. Armed Predator and Reaper drones have launched many of the strikes, and they also are used for surveillance and “buddy-lasing” with conventional bombers; when the drone operators sight a target, they shoot a laser beam that fighter planes’ precision-guided bombs can follow. Moreover, the intelligence drawn upon for targeting decisions comes almost entirely from aerial surveillance because of the lack of on-the-ground human resources amidst the areas where people and sites are being targeted. This means that assessments about the effects of strikes—notably, whether they have killed their targets or caused civilian casualties—is based on aerially-derived data, which is classified.

Alongside the coalition military offensive, the CIA and JSOC recently launched a separate targeted killing campaign in Syria targeting ISIS leaders and operatives responsible for recruiting or orchestrating attacks in other countries. This campaign is entirely drone-based. The CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center has the role of identifying and locating targets, and JSOC carries out the bombings. The decision to launch this campaign reflects the Obama administration’s “frustration with the failure of conventional strikes to degrade the group’s strength.” And the decision to split the find-fix-finish roles, where the CIA finds and fixes and JSOC finishes reflects the president’s goal to shift the lethal use of force—at least in Syria—from the CIA to the military.

As is standard practice for drone warfare in Pakistan and Yemen, officials publicly claim that strikes in Syria and Iraq are precise and cause few or no civilian casualties. To investigate these claims, Chris Woods, who directed the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s Drones Project, set up a new project called Airwars to monitor and report on the consequences of the aerial interventions in Syria and Iraq. According to Airwars’ first report, “Despite claims by the US-led Coalition that its airstrikes in Iraq and Syria are ‘the most precise and disciplined in the history of aerial warfare,’ there are clear indications from the field that many hundreds of non-combatants have been killed by the 12 international allies in the first year of their air war against Islamic State/ Daesh.” Woods elaborates: With around one in four American airstrikes in Iraq and Syria now being carried out by drones—and as many as one in two British strikes—the  present war against Islamic State shows the increasing dominance of remotely-piloted warfare. However, continuing and credible reports of civilian casualties from the battlefield suggest the drone isn’t the ‘perfect’ weapon some have claimed.”

As of August 2015, the US-led coalition claims to have killed 15,000 ISIS members and supporters. However, recruitment has kept apace; every month a thousand new recruits hailing from up to fifty countries make their way to areas controlled by ISIS. This flow to ISIS dwarfs the numbers who went to fight in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s and into Iraq during the occupation. “U.S. intelligence estimates ISIS having between 20,000 to 31,500 fighters — essentially what it was a year ago. Other estimates have put ISIS numbers even higher.” ISIS “remains as strong as ever and is actually making gains in Syria despite the very heavy use of air power…This indicates its ability to adapt pretty rapidly to this level of air war, including drone strikes.” 

In August 2015, the New York Times revealed that the Pentagon’s Inspector General was investigating allegations that intelligence assessments of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra (an al-Qaeda affiliate) in Syria had been manipulated, and an investigation had been launched. In September, the Daily Beast reported that as many as fifty analysts working for the United States’ central command (CENTCOM) had formally complained that their assessments were being ignored or altered. “The analysts have accused senior-level leaders, including the director of intelligence and his deputy in CENTCOM, of changing their analyses to be more in line with the Obama administration’s public contention that the fight against ISIS and al Qaeda is making progress. The analysts take a more pessimistic view about how military efforts to destroy the groups are going.” This episode of intelligence manipulation and politicization is similar to events during the Vietnam War.

Conclusion: The Inherent Elusiveness of Victory

Is there any causal relationship between rising threats and the expanding drone program? This strategic question, for the most part, is left unaddressed in public statements by officials. Instead, what is articulated is a synchronic analysis of action and reaction: threats exist and must be countered by strikes, and strikes that kill imminent threat-posing targets enhance security. There is no room in this white-hat narrative for critical reflection that the threat-strike-security dynamic might, in fact, be dialectical. 

Have strategists, behind the veil of secrecy, considered this “blowback” possibility? One CIA memorandum dated 7 July 2009 (and published on 18 December 2014 by Wikileaks) would suggest not. This analytical memorandum is an assessment of the effectiveness of a number of the Agency’s operations and programs, dating back decades. The document’s assessment of the strategy and efficacy of targeted killing by drones exposes a willful blindness to adverse consequences. According to Scott Horton,

The analysis notes that drone attacks, raids and military actions against al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders may not produce the anticipated outcome because the Islamist enemy has a seemingly limitless ability to produce new leaders. However, the study has only a weak appreciation of some of the more obvious and far-reaching shortcomings of the program: for instance, the fact that drone wars facilitate recruitment by the target organizations, build much stronger rapport between the Islamists and disaffected populations in peripheral regions with whom they associate, and may turn political tides against the United States in the affected nation, as has rather dramatically been the case in both Pakistan and Yemen. In other words, the CIA analysis makes a pretense of being balanced, but it is stacked in favor of drone assassinations—and therefore in favor of maintaining a leading role for the CIA in the war on terror.

There are voices in national security and academic circles arguing that the ways in which the “war on terror” has been waged—including torture, the brutality of the US occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, and targeted killing—have contributed significantly to the current situation. For example, Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn, former head of the Defence Intelligence Agency and a commander of JSOC—positions which had put him squarely in the middle of targeted killing and drone warfare before he retired from the military—opined in a recent interview:

I think that we have invested in more conflict instead of actually investing in solutions….We invest in more drones, we invest in more bombs, we invest in more weapons, we invest in more ammunition, we invest in more guys to go out to kill more guys. That is investing in conflict…The military has to be like a lower-case “m.”…It is not the piece that is going to win the day. There has to be other components of a strategy, and I don’t see it…When you drop a bomb from a drone… you are going to cause more damage than you are going to cause good.

Yet this kind of national security strategy critique is almost entirely missing in discourse among people in office. To own this empirically sound critique would entail an acknowledgment of vast errors of judgment by those in power. It also would require a clear-headed and skeptical assessment of the strategic efficacy of drone warfare, which became and remains “the only game in town.” This lethal whack-a-mole “game” played with armed drones enables the United States to keep killing without risk, but it perpetuates or exacerbates the kind of violence that keeps the war going and makes impossible anything that could meaningfully be called victory.

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