Small Wars Journal

national security decision-making

Necessary (Perhaps) But Not Sufficient: Assessing Drone Strikes Through A Counterinsurgency Lens

 

The relatively recent New York Times article on President Obama’s “Kill List” (and other similar articles here and here along with the strike on Al-Qaeda’s former second-in-command) highlights not just a moral conundrum for the commander-in-chief but a strategy that if enacted by itself may cause more harm than good.  What’s worse, the United States has learned that this approach is self-defeating at the operational level in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  A “kill list” is little different than a “body count” strategy—kill enough of them, and the threat goes away.  However, as noted in the article, the kill list which includes individuals from a number of states (including the United States) never gets shorter, the names and faces are simply replaced. 

More recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan, our military forces recognized that such kinetic or direct action meant little without more robust political, economic, and local security development efforts.  For specific purposes, drone strikes are tactically useful.  They can remove key individuals from the tactical, operational, and planning roles they filled which weakens the overall capabilities of the adversary.  But, like a “body count” strategy, success cannot be measured by the number of individuals killed—direct strikes must be part of a comprehensive approach to be truly effective in counterinsurgency operations. As recent gains have demonstrated, achieving the overall goals of defeating an insurgency requires that kinetic operations support the more mundane but ultimately more important political and economic operations along with the development of local security capabilities. That is the best way to achieve stability and security.  Make no mistake, kinetic operations are a key part of an overall successful operation.  But, they are just that -- a part of an overall successful operation. 

Using drone strikes in countries in which we do not have the same level of stability and support activities as we have in Iraq and Afghanistan is where the dilemma lies.  The assumption, though, is that the benefit of killing a key individual outweighs the animosity generated within the local population.  We cannot forget that there is always some degree of animosity generated from these operations.  Guilty as well as innocent people are killed.  Sovereignty is violated.  Honor is trampled.  In both Iraq and Afghanistan, difficult decisions have been made on the benefits of kinetic operations versus the negative repercussions generated.  Winning the battle cannot—and should not—be traded for winning the war.

The working “guess” in conducting drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, and other countries is that the benefits to national security policy outweigh the negative feelings and animosity generated by such strikes.  But is this correct?  Can kinetic operations without political, economic, and local security development operations be more effective on a strategic level than on the operational and tactical levels?  And really how dangerous is this indignation and ire that is generated towards the United States?  Drawing the causal link between a drone strike in Pakistan and an attempted bombing in the United States is, for all intents and purposes, impossible.  A man whose cousin was killed in an airstrike five years ago may not become the next terrorist mastermind, but he may be much less likely to tell foreign or local security forces that such a person is living in the same area.   To paraphrase Mao Zedong—who compared insurgents to fish and the population that supported them to water—even if our actions might not be generating more fish, they are still generating more water.     

The number of Al Qaeda members killed by such activities, though, is hard to ignore.  According to Bill Roggio in his blog Long War Journal, “2,300 leaders and operatives from Taliban, Al Qaeda, and allied extremist groups [have been] killed and 138 civilians [have been] killed” in Pakistan in 300 drone strikes since 2006.  Any civilian casualty is unacceptable, but removing a couple of thousand individuals who could potentially do harm to Americans and further destabilize the Afghan government seems to be a step forward in achieving our strategic goals.  If Mr. Roggio’s numbers are accurate, this is strong evidence in support of drone strikes. 

But even given these numbers, I am not sure how kinetic operations without the other non-kinetic activities would be more effective at the strategic level. We may believe that a comparatively small number of drone strikes in Yemen versus a large number of drone strikes in Afghanistan generate relatively less blowback, but in today’s internet and strategic communication reality this is not necessarily the case.  One drone strike magnified through the internet a thousand-fold may be just as detrimental to our overall goals as a hundred drone strikes in an analog world.  Detractors may say that such strategic communication really does not matter, even though we give lip service to its importance; removing terrorists from the battlefield matters above all else.  Such may be true.  Even if we wanted to support kinetic operations with political and economic operations, the scale would probably make such actions impossible given the lives, money, and time spent just in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We must make a frank assessment of the degree to which these strikes support our overall strategic goals when they are conducted without the full implementation of other necessary activities.    

So where does that leave us?  Stuck between bad options, it seems.  Politics demands that we “do something” to fight terrorist organizations, but that “something” may harm our overall goals.  Drone strikes may be part of an answer, but they are not the answer.  

The Dangerous Precedent of POTUS Picking Targets

Washington is abuzz over the presumed political pandering behind the White House¹s fostering the image of the Commander in Chief as the final arbiter of which among our terrorist enemies abroad is or is not a legitimate target for U.S. drone strikes. While regrettably self-serving if true, the outrage misses the more important point: the President's limited time is better spent on strategy than on tactics.

Simply stated, civilian control of the U.S. military is a foundational concept of our democracy, but it doesn't mean the President needs to pull the trigger himself.  It is inescapable that briefs getting to the President are short, often consensus-driven, and lack some details because they have been filtered and reviewed by dozens of people.  That is fine for delivering information to support strategic decisions, but insufficient for tactical go/no-go decisions that require both a deeper background in military and intelligence affairs and appreciation of subtle differences within snippets of intelligence reports than any President could or should have.  We must protect the kinds of tactical and operationally sensitive information otherwise not written down because it could compromise sources and expose tradecraft and relationships with foreign intelligence services. Also, the President need not personally weigh the personality of the field officer filing the report or institutional rivalries that shade conclusions this way or that. Unless the target is Bin Laden himself, isn¹t it better that the President be setting policy, delegating to trusted professionals, and spending his time working to resolve other major issues?

Three related concerns also arise:

First, even if he had all the details he doesn’t have decades of on-the-ground experience in intelligence to rely upon in making tactical-level life and death decisions. We live in a harsh and changing world, one where a decision today to use a drone kills a man without trial or appeal. In a world where a couple dozen people can kill three thousand and cost billions in damage and decades of war, such summary executions may have become necessary.  As a realist I can accept that because the other option is to let these terrorists kill untold hundreds or thousands of innocent lives. But it is not appropriate for the President to be seen as picking specific names and setting the conditions under which specific strikes occur; he is neither qualified nor sufficiently protected to be doing such tactical tasks.

Second, we cannot afford a President overly-wedded to any specific decision nor forget the need to protect the Oval Office from repercussions following inevitable mistakes, collateral damages, killing a source by accident, or potentially politically-motivated International Criminal Court (ICC) actions.

Third, any executive must build out his team, empower subordinates, and rely on others with more experience, perspective, and time to spend making the tactical decisions and doing the legwork. President

Lincoln famously got involved in the Civil War by hiring and firing generals but he didn't point the cannons himself or set the time of a given battle; he set forth orders and held subordinates accountable because the President’s role is in to craft strategy with the execution done via duly appointed subordinates. Taking away these decisions isolates a leader from developing trusted aides who can act in his stead ­ a critical force multiplier needed for any complex operation, and doubly so for a White House.

For these reasons and more the President should set policy and let someone else make the call.  This could be the head of the Special Operations Command, Director of National Intelligence, or a special panel convened for making such decisions.

Meanwhile, the President should focus on serious strategic issues like the impacts of the current laws requiring ‘sequestration’ cuts of another $500 billion from the national security budget, strengthening ties with NATO and other allies, and addressing frictions on issues like Syria, re-supply lines thru Pakistan to Afghanistan, and the rise of China as a true naval power.

In a rough and tumble world sometimes realism dictates a certain amount of plausible deniability. The President would do well to remember that and leave the sorting of specific targets to those under his command and acting in due regard to his specific guidance. The intelligence and military professionals at senior levels have spent decades developing their instincts and either they are up to the job or they should be replaced with people who are. Either way, the President needs to operate strategically and set policy by focusing on the big picture.

The President’s Not-So-Stunning Moment of Candor

About three months ago, the 24-hour news cycle and the blogosphere were aflame with news of President Obama’s comments to Russian President Medvedev regarding European missile defense, picked up on an open microphone and heard by a platoon of reporters.  The President noted:  “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but its important for [Putin] to give me space…This is my last election.  After my election I have more flexibility.”[1]  Stated more plainly, the President, in a private conversation unknowingly made public through a technical oversight, admitted that domestic politics and international affairs are inextricably interlinked, and that candidates standing election sometimes must have different positions than candidates unburdened by concerns about politics.  Well, knock me over with a feather.  Who knew that domestic politics and foreign affairs were linked?

Honestly, this writer cannot quite get his head around what it is everyone cannot get their head around.  Did anyone honestly labor under the delusion that domestic politics do not affect the conduct of foreign affairs, and vice-versa?  Do the American people really expect that the President’s posture on missile defense would not change depending on his position in the election cycle?  That such a dynamic does not have enormous historical precedent in American politics?  As recently as the administration of the 43rd President, decisions on the Iraq invasion and hesitance to increase the force footprint in Iraq likely were driven by the November, 2004 election.  Decisions on military escalation in Vietnam were driven by the 1964 and 1968 general elections, and Nixon’s Vietnamization campaign was born partially out of political calculus as he looked toward the 1976 race.  Woodrow Wilson adopted a noninterventionist agenda based principally on domestic politics until World War I became inevitable, and Lincoln’s choice to remove McClellan as his army commander in 1862 likely were made with one eye on victory and the other focused on 1864.  Even unparalleled wartime leader FDR factored electoral politics into his decisions to stay out of WWII after the 1939 invasion of Poland and the 1940 rollup of the low countries and France, prioritizing continued, fragile domestic economic recovery as a political consideration until the day which lives in infamy.

Moreover, it is not sufficient to understand this dynamic merely as an unfortunate instance “of that’s just how it is.”  In fact, it is that way by design, and it is part of the grand bargain the electorate makes with a President each time he is elected or re-elected:  we know tacitly that priorities will change, and the electorate makes calculated guesses based on our collective estimate of how far one way or the other he will sway once safe from being cashiered.  Presidents are political actors, by definition.  Each president is also the chief economist, strategic leader, a noteworthy social icon, super-Attorney General and head law enforcement officer, and chief diplomat for the nation.  The President is required to balance all of these roles, and to prioritize each at different points in the historical cycle of a presidency.  In fact, whether we want to admit or not, we expect a President to be a political actor and to prioritize politics at times:  who wants to follow a loser who accepts political defeat as a fait accompli?  Domestic politics is merely a reflection of national priorities, even if there is not always a 100% match, as one subsystem lags or leads the other.

The real issue that national security professionals, the diplomatic community, and the electorate should register and monitor is the insertion of politics as the principal motivator of a president’s strategic, economic, and administrative decisions.  We should understand and even tacitly encourage the president to be a competitive politician with the will and desire to win.  Our national communities of interest have a responsibility to help the president shape his priorities through the delivery of sound, prudent, well-reasoned advice and advocacy which has but one agenda:  the economic and social health, well-being, security, and prosperity of the nation.  That is the standard against which we should judge a president’s performance, taking into account his or her entire body of work, not individual data points hyperbolized into something greater than they really are.

As the electoral frenzy waxes toward November, we can expect the administration to engage in additional political calculation as it shapes national security decisions this year.  We should expect it as a natural byproduct of the electoral process.  Political leaders have to be responsive to the will and priorities of the people, expressed through a number of mediums – polls, online, broadcast and print media, the political actions and statements of allies and rivals, and national economic performance, among other cues.  As this President makes decisions on weighty national security issues such as Syrian intervention, counterterrorism policy, cybersecurity, missile defense, U.S. policy on Iran, China, North Korea, and Mexico, the South Asian security dilemma, and the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the polity should expect political considerations to factor into the administration’s decisionmaking calculus as a vehicle for continuing his national security agenda into the next term.  The clamor from some quarters for a national security decisionmaking process free of domestic political constraints is not only naïve, it is unwise in terms of its abstraction from the national will.



[1] David Nakamura and Debbi Wilgoren, Obama seeks more time on missile defense, Washington Post, Mar. 26, 2012.