Well, it’s May, and it seems like every year about this time (2011, 2012, 2013) I end up writing more about drones. I didn’t see this being a heavy week on the discussion of drones, but what else should I do but continue to drone on…..
First, the International Crisis Group (ICG) released one of the more extensive research efforts into the use of armed drones in counterterrorism. The report “Drones: Myths and Realities in Pakistan” provides a comprehensive analysis and lots of references. I’m still reading it now, but I’ve already found many interesting points in “Section IV: Drones and Counterterrorism” starting on page 22. I’ll note some interesting quotes here in this post which mirror discussions I’ve had in previous posts on drones here at this blog.
On page 24, the section entitled “Winning Hearts and Minds or Losing Allies?” starts off with hosts this paragraph.
In debates on the drone issue, the argument is commonly put forward that drones produce more terrorists than they kill: militant groups exploit real and fabricated accounts of civilian deaths to enlist fresh recruits, including the relatives of drone strike victims, for jihad against the U.S. and its allies.133 The actual benefit to extremist groups, including in terms of recruitment, appears, however, minimal. A local analyst who has extensively researched security and governance in FATA notes that while anti-drone rhetoric does draw some converts, “the loss of a Baitullah Mehsud or a Qari Hussain is much more damaging than the recruitment of a few dozen foot soldiers”.134
As I noted in my previous post, the reasons for joining an extremist group vary significantly from place to place and person to person. In all cases, I believe the local socioeconomic dynamics surrounding the recruit play the greatest role. In this report, ICG notes:
Moreover, militant recruitment is a complex process, achieved more often on economic than ideological grounds. The main causes for the spread of militancy in FATA are not drone strikes but domestic factors. These include the absence of the state and insecurity due to the resulting political, legal and economic vacuum; and the military’s support of, provision of sanctuaries to, and peace deals with militant groups.
As noted earlier this week, Christine Fair described the same root causes in 2010. The ICG report goes on to explain why public opinion polling reference drone use in FATA is essentially worthless. In my opinion, the closer one polls to where the drone strike occurs, the less people will like drone strikes. This isn’t rocket science (well, maybe it is a little bit, drones fire rockets). One final quote from the paper comes from a researcher who compares drone strikes to other options:
said a researcher. “You had military operations and militancy on one side, which destroyed towns and villages, and you had drones on the other, which were more precise.”
The article concludes that drones are not the solution or a long-run solution. I think almost everyone agrees on this. The article says the solution is for Pakistan and the West to establish “Rule of Law”. OK, well, Pakistan and other nations have only tried to govern this area for a few centuries, right, so maybe we can tackle this challenge ……uhhh, next fiscal year? Not likely.
Second, Attorney General Eric Holder revealed one of the biggest non-secrets in American history: the U.S. uses drones and these drones have killed Americans.
Holder’s letter offered a detailed justification for the CIA’S killing of Awlaki, who Holder said had “repeatedly made clear his intent to attack U.S. persons and his hope that these attacks would take American lives.”
Transparency, I like it. I wish they did this after every drone strike. But then again, would we expect this sort of transparency after every infantry squad engagement? Probably not! And are Americans sufficiently informed to understand what they would even be reading? Would they care? I don’t know, but I guess Holder’s prelude is set up for…..wait for it…..
Third, President Obama will provide an address on his counterterrorism policy on Thursday. Supposedly this address will go over everything: GITMO, drones, disposition matrix kind of stuff maybe. It sounds like the President will be addressing all the CT stuff I was complaining about last year in the post “Counterterrorism 2012: No Drones, No Detention, No Intervention“. The NY Times article “Debate Aside, Number of Drone Strikes Drops Sharply” shows how drone use has decreased ( I posted their table from Long War Journal below). The article notes:
Mr. Obama, who insisted early in his presidency on a personal role in many strike decisions, may also shed light on the declining use of drone strikes. Current and former officials say the reasons include a shrinking list of important Qaeda targets, a result of the success of past strikes, and transient factors ranging from bad weather to diplomatic strains. But more broadly, the decline may reflect a changing calculation of the long-term costs and benefits of targeted killings.
So, after all the complaints the past year about transparency and CT strategy, all the bashing on both political sides about the threat of terrorism and how counterterrorism should be conducted, the President seems to be giving everyone what they want right; information and a strategy. And what will likely happen? Both sides will probably crucify him for it. The President will attempt to do exactly what some of the American public has asked for, and Friday morning on Twitter, there will be nothing but bitching, moaning and sharpshooting. Well, I think we should close GITMO, I think we should keep using drones, and I have a feeling, for the most part, I’ll be happy with most of what the President outlines that the USG is doing in counterterrorism. If anything, I think we could maybe do less in some areas. In retrospect, for me, U.S. counterterrorism makes a lot more sense in 2013 than it did in 2003. In conclusion, for my take on what modifications could be made to the drone program, see this post (Americans: If you don’t want to get killed by a drone avoid these four things!) and this post (After Brennan, Implementing Curbs on Drone Targeting).