Green Room

Drone warfare and “just war”

posted at 3:32 pm on September 26, 2011 by

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 The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Weekly Standard online, and her own blog, The Optimistic Conservative.

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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 object of war is not a pile of skulls. Wars are won in the will and drones are currently valued as a means to avoid casualties while still inflicting damage on the enemy. That is a failure of will on the part of the American people and the military. That isn’t to suggest that more casualties are what we should be aiming for, but it does suggest there is a breaking point for the west that is far closer than the Muslim breaking point. They know this.

We saw the same dynamic in Vietnam where the North Vietnamese were willing to sustain casualties and defeats that would have broken American administrations. After the war, Harry Summers recalled an encounter with a North Vietnamese general in which Summers said that the Americans won every battle in Vietnam. The general replied, “That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.

The problem is as you correctly point out, that killing isn’t winning. That is a lesson that should have been learned in World War One and not forgotten.

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.

If Jihad is an outgrowth of Islam as historically reflected in the Mujahideen, Ghazi, Ansars, Barbary Corsairs, Fedayeen, or their modern counterparts the Janjaweed, Somali pirates, and the terrorist networks, then we may never be able to accomplish that goal. The Jihad may have been put on hiatus during the western occupation and following the retreat from these colonial possessions, restarted. The presence of Islam has historically meant the presence of raiders on sea, land, and in the modern age as infiltrators (terrorists).

We like to think somehow that our mere presence will warp history and supress this aspect of Islam, but all the evidence seems to indicate otherwise. The terrorists who attack the west are some of the more educated and wealthy to be found in Islam. They also seem to come from some of the more western aligned states, not the poverty stricken, hostile regimes. Saudi’s, Egyptians, UAE, Lebanese, as well as citizens within western democratic states. They were not Afghans, Syrians, or Iranians.

Democratization and liberalization seems to be having the exact opposite effect in the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ and allied states that we thought they would have because we do not know or respect our enemy. They are not us, and we need to face that reality. They will react just as we do, through a filter of history, culture, religion and tradition. Their filters, not ours.

We assume that we just need to do a show and tell of western democracy and they will recognize the vast superiority of our way of life and embrace it. The look of revulsion on their faces should have been the first clue that things may not be as we had hoped. We blithely ignore it of course and proceed in our invincible ignorance to redouble our efforts to demonstrate how much better off they will be if they just listened. Our nation building creates states with Sharia law baked into their constitutions and we seem fine with this as well in our arrogant assumption that their religious beliefs are just quaint window dressing that has little meaning in the real world. They don’t see it that way and they don’t act that way.

Democracy is just a tool and in the hands of the Christian west it went in one direction, while Islam, a short hop across the Mediterranean fought against it for 300 hundred years until overwhelmed by the western colonial powers. Now we are trying to impose/demonstrate the same thing expecting different results.

Given victory as defined above (a condition in which we do not have to fight Islamist militants), and taking into account the historical reality of Jihad within Islam, it is entirely possible that there will be no victory against Islam.

sharrukin on September 26, 2011 at 6:46 PM

If Islam is rotten at the core, and produces terrorist from those who closely follow it, then yes, there is no permanent peace without genocide. Is surrender the alternative to using drones?

AnotherOpinion on September 26, 2011 at 8:03 PM

Given victory as defined above (a condition in which we do not have to fight Islamist militants), and taking into account the historical reality of Jihad within Islam, it is entirely possible that there will be no victory against Islam.

sharrukin on September 26, 2011 at 6:46 PM

You may be right, sharrukin, although we used to say something very similar about Soviet Communism.

I believe one of the biggest factors working against us right now is one that has little to do, at least in a direct sense, with the battle space and strategy. We don’t look like the strong horse. With our debt problems, political paralysis, inability to make a decision, and civilizational self-doubt, we don’t inspire respect. We look as pathetic and foolish to others as we do to ourselves.

Something like drone assassinations is always seen in context by those who are targeted. When the attacker looks strong and determined, the use of drones enhances the intimidating image of what he’s doing.

When the attacker looks tired and irritable, using drones looks like doing the least he can get away with, and doing the only thing that works.

It isn’t possible to pursue victory using only a drone campaign. Using a drone campaign is a signal that there is no concept of victory over Islamism. That’s the war lost, right there. It’s why I must disagree with AnotherOpinion. Favoring drones and endless “targeted” killings isn’t an alternative to surrender — it is surrender.

J.E. Dyer on September 26, 2011 at 8:35 PM

If Islam is rotten at the core, and produces terrorist from those who closely follow it, then yes, there is no permanent peace without genocide. Is surrender the alternative to using drones?

AnotherOpinion on September 26, 2011 at 8:03 PM

There are other alternatives.

1. Live with a low level of warfare as has been done in the past. This would require fighting back at a similar level, otherwise it would essentially be the same situation we have had for decades which is just a slow motion surrender.

2. Occupation. Return to the colonial model of military occupation. Not really feasible due to the advance in weapons technology that makes individuals more dangerous and any occupation more costly than we would be willing to pay.

3. Disproportionate response. Utilize our military superiority to inflict damage well beyond the instigating incident. A terrorist attack killing dozens is answered with carpet bombing that kills many thousands. This creates a local incentive by controlling nation states to prevent attacks from their territory.

4. Containment. I have my doubts if this is viable, but containing the spread of Islam by blockade, embargo, and using local proxies to roll it back when the opportunity presents itself.

5. Genocide. Nuclear or otherwise, we go medieval on them.

6. Surrender. Currently the leftists (and the right as well to be honest) favored way of dealing with them is a slow surrender to Islam in the name of multi-culturalism. They know its a false bargain but it gives them time to finish the dance and party hardy until the lights go out.

sharrukin on September 26, 2011 at 8:52 PM

You may be right, sharrukin, although we used to say something very similar about Soviet Communism.

Given the way that socialism has taken hold in both the United States and Europe and the ideological underpinnings of the current resident of the White House, what we said about Communism may have been on the money. Did we really win that one?

I believe one of the biggest factors working against us right now is one that has little to do, at least in a direct sense, with the battle space and strategy. We don’t look like the strong horse. With our debt problems, political paralysis, inability to make a decision, and civilizational self-doubt, we don’t inspire respect. We look as pathetic and foolish to others as we do to ourselves.

I think a lot of that can be traced to a loss of confidence in ourselves. We no longer have any certainty about who we are. Are we a Christian nation, a religious nation in the general sense, or a secular nation. What are we fighting for and what are our values in a moral, cultural and religious sense? We are trying to be all inclusive and that simply isn’t possible. A nation must have borders and precepts that define who they are, and who they are not.

It isn’t possible to pursue victory using only a drone campaign. Using a drone campaign is a signal that there is no concept of victory over Islamism. That’s the war lost, right there. It’s why I must disagree with AnotherOpinion. Favoring drones and endless “targeted” killings isn’t an alternative to surrender — it is surrender.

J.E. Dyer on September 26, 2011 at 8:35 PM

The point I want to make is that we have to know what victory we want, that it is possible to achieve, and who the enemy actually is. If Islamists are the enemy that is one thing. If Islam as a force in the world is the enemy, that is quite another.

If Jihadists (Islamists) are a natural outgrowth of Islam then we are fighting the flames, not the fire.

sharrukin on September 26, 2011 at 9:06 PM

Does “autonomous” mean the UAV will not have human operators or decision makers? Yikes. What could go wrong?

purpleslog on September 27, 2011 at 2:08 AM

In place of the word ‘drone’ substitute ‘car bomb’, and see how the piece reads to you then.

Skandia Recluse on September 27, 2011 at 10:25 AM

“What those models presuppose is the absence of a possibility of strategic resolution”

The UN exists to prevent “strategic resolution”, in the naive belief that, by preventing anyone from winning, wars can be prevented.

And, as a good leftist, Obama doesn’t want the US to obtain victory either. It’s just politically necessary for his to avoid defeat, so an eternal conflict is the expected result. Drone attacks are the way that Obama fulfills the requirement that he be seen as “Doing Something”, without the political hazards of putting troops in harm’s way or risking victory.

LarryD on September 27, 2011 at 10:47 AM