Drone warfare and “just war”
posted at 3:32 pm on September 26, 2011 by J.E. Dyer
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).
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?