Sunday, January 27, 2013

Drone war: what for?


Code Pink visits the San Francisco residence of Senator Diane Feinstein. Photo: Rashad Sisemore, The Chronicle

Joshua Foust isn't Code Pink. He's a Fellow at the American Security Project with expertise in irregular warfare and Central Asia. That is, he's one of those guys who run in U.S. intelligence, military, and D.C.-establishment think tank circles. He has recently churned out a public paper on the drone war.

The Obama administration seems more and more enamored of using drones for overseas power projection. It's nice to see Foust move beyond technical assessments to ask the hard question:

Ultimately, the question that must be answered when evaluating drone strikes is “what is the end state?”

Drones have some discrete and measurable effects, but what purpose are the strikes meant to serve? The stated U.S. policy is to destroy, degrade, and defeat al Qaeda. But determining what that looks like is no simple task. While drones can be effective at destroying parts of al Qaeda and thus degrading its capacity to launch attacks, they are also insufficient on their own for accomplishing the broader goals of U.S. counterterrorism policy. 

Most academic studies agree that targeted killing conducted by armed drones may be effective as part of a broader strategy. Drones, however, have limits. Where drone strikes are found to have a measurable effect, it tends to be temporary. Successful strikes correlate in some circumstances with a temporary reduction in the incidence and intensity of terrorist violence, but may also correlate with long-term increases in retaliatory attacks against local government and persistent instability.

This suggests that while drones can manage the terrorist problem for a short time, they are not necessarily contributing to a long term reduction of the threat. The long term reduction of threat is absent in most discussions of the drone program. Drones have killed many al Qaeda terrorists, but the threat appears to be migrating elsewhere and taking on new forms. So what is that end state drones are meant to accomplish, and can we measure whether that end state is being reached?

There it is again, just as became obvious in Iraq and Afghanistan -- the U.S. is flaunting our unparalleled military capacity wherever our government chooses -- but for what purpose?

The Iraq invasion was a vainglorious war of choice without any purpose that served the interests of the United States people -- and which produced nothing for us but wasted treasure and squandered lives. Nobody ever figured out what the object of the Afghanistan occupation might be after the Taliban were smashed and Bin Laden evicted in late 2001; the U.S. will leave in 2014, never having set a plausible objective for the murderous exercise.

Current U.S enthusiasm for drones is simply a cheap technical fix for the imperial drive to show the world who is boss. Okay, we get it. The U.S. can blow up people remotely (in countries that can't shoot back) with some accuracy. But the questions remains, what's the point? It is really just to prove we can? Of course there are people who hate us and would do us wrong -- but do we have to wander the world playing "whack-a-mole," all the while making new blood feuds where once there were none? Or, in Foust's language: "“what is the end state?”

These days, on the domestic front, enough of us are on to the con; we don't like wasting lives and our tax dollars on stupid wars. So playing with our latest hardware is pretty much all our rulers can do without major political pushback. (Ask George W. what happens to a presidency when majorities turn against a costly war.) The U.S. monopoly on this new plaything won't last. By the standards of military hardware, these things are cheap. All developed countries will have them soon enough. That will be a lovely world.

Shooting up little guys who can't shoot back is what dumb empires do. And democracies die when their rulers can't even explain to their people who and why they kill -- or why we should take on distant fights.

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