Normative Narratives

Conflict Watch: Drone Week(s), It’s a Bad Week to be a Terrorist

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I should probably say “drone month” or “drone year / decade”, but I really wanted to make a play on Shark Week so there it is.

Comic relief aside, news of drone strikes in the Middle East and Central Asia has proliferated recently:

Pakistan:

At least six militants were killed and four others injured after the latest American drone strike in Pakistan’s restive tribal belt on Sunday, Pakistani intelligence officials and militant commanders said.

An intelligence official in the area, who was authorized to speak only on the condition of anonymity, said preliminary reports indicated that a senior commander with a Pakistani Taliban faction led by Gul Bahadur, which has links with Al Qaeda, had been killed in the attack.

There have been 15 C.I.A.-led drone strikes in Pakistan so far this year, compared with 47 in 2012, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which monitors the strikes. Up to 124 people have been killed, the group said, including up to 4 civilians.

Pakistani officials say the attacks violate their country’s sovereignty, result in civilian deaths and aid in the recruitment of fresh militants. American officials privately dispute those claims, saying the civilian death toll has dropped as strikes have grown more accurate in recent years.

Yemen:

Missile-armed drone aircraft launched the fifth attack on suspected al-Qaeda militants in Yemen within 72 hours, as the U.S. stepped up raids after closing its embassy and warning Americans to leave the country.

The drone killed three people in a vehicle in Ghail Bawazeer region, according to the al-Sahwa news website of the opposition Islamist Islah party, which is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. At least 22 suspected militants have been killed since Aug. 6, according to a tally from reports on the website.

The strikes come as the U.S., Britain and other Western countries closed their missions in Yemen and told citizens to leave, while Yemeni authorities said on Aug. 7 they had foiled an al-Qaeda plot to seize port facilities. The Obama administration is keeping 19 embassies and consulates closed because “a threat still remains” from al-Qaeda affiliates, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said yesterday.

Saeed Obaid al-Jemhi, an expert on al-Qaeda and Islamist movements and author of a book on the Yemeni group, said the intensified campaign will be counterproductive.

“The Americans feel these strikes will generate a positive impact and that is true, but there is a huge negative impact on Yemen,” he said. “This will generate more sympathizers with al-Qaeda and will also weaken the popularity of the Yemen’s President Hadi.”

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported a sharp increase in U.S. operations in Yemen in 2012, with at least 32 confirmed strikes, double the number carried out in 2011. The U.S. intends to end drone attacks in Pakistan soon, Secretary of State John Kerry said on Aug. 1.

Egypt:

An Israeli drone strike inside Egypt killed five suspected Islamic militants and destroyed a rocket launcher Friday, two senior Egyptian security officials said, marking a rare Israeli operation carried out in its Arab neighbor’s territory.

The strike, coming after a warning from Egypt caused Israel to briefly close an airport Thursday, potentially signals a significant new level of cooperation between the two former foes over security matters in the largely lawless Sinai Peninsula after a military coup ousted Egypt’s president. Egypt long has maintained that it wouldn’t allow other countries to use its territories as hotbed to launch attacks against other countries.

The drone strike comes after Israel briefly prevented landings at an airport in the Red Sea resort of Eilat on Thursday. While Israeli officials would only say the closure came out of unspecified security concerns, an Egyptian security official told the AP that officials warned Israel about the possibility of rocket strikes. The official said Egyptian authorities received intelligence suggesting terrorist groups planned to fire missiles Friday at Israel, as well as at locations in northern Sinai and the Suez Canal.

Residents heard a large explosion Friday in el-Agra, an area in the northern region of the Sinai close to Egypt’s border with Israel. The officials said the Israeli attack was in cooperation with Egyptian authorities.

While Egypt signed a peace deal with Israel in 1979, the country has long been suspicious of the Jewish state’s intentions while annually celebrating its own military exploits against Israel in the Sinai. Allowing an Israeli drone strike inside its own territory represents military cooperation otherwise never seen before.

Proliferation of drone strikes has occurred in line with D.I.M.E. (Diplomatic, Intelligence, Military, Economic) foreign policy, and has been carried out in a more transparent way (as evidenced by news reports on drone strikes).  For a reminder, or the sake of new readers, I had this to say about the place of drone strikes within the larger D.I.M.E. framework:

We must realize that everyday there are people who try to hurt Americans Western interests–Jihad does not take a vacation. The fact that the Boston Marathon attack was the first major act of terrorism on American soil since 9/11 is not a result of a diminished threat, but rather highlights the efficacy of American intelligence efforts.

To the extent that the Obama administration is embracing a a shift to D.I.M.E. (diplomatic, intelligence, military, economic) foreign policy, winding down traditional military programs requires putting more resources in diplomacy, economic aid, and intelligence gathering. As I said, far from being hypocritical, the Obama administration is being consistent; when the ultimate goal is security for American’s (and the world), putting people directly in the line of fire is counter-productive unless it is truly a last-case scenario.  

Obama did not say he would stop drone strikes, but that he would make the process more transparent. He did not say he would stop fighting terrorism, but that the way that terrorism is going to be fought is changing.

Are Drone strikes a necessary evil in today’s world? Considering the high cost of traditional warfare (both in money and in lives), and the inability to keep terrorist leaders in jail due to prison-breaks, perhaps targeted, intelligence-backed drone strikes truly are the most effective way of moving forward with “the War on Terror”. Terrorists due not respect human rights and due process, why should they be granted such privileges?

The “drone-strikes-fuels-Jihad” argument seems to hold water. Are drone strikes really counter-productive in terms of increasing the appeal of / helping recruiting efforts for extremist groups? Testimony from the sentencing portion of the Bradley Manning case sheds light on this claim:

A prosecution witness in the sentencing phase of the court-martial of Pfc. Bradley Manning told a military judge on Thursday that Al Qaeda could have used WikiLeaks disclosures, including classified United States government materials provided by Private Manning, to encourage attacks in the West, in testimony meant to show the harm done by his actions.

The witness, Cmdr. Youssef Aboul-Enein, an adviser to the Pentagon’s Joint Intelligence Task Force for Combating Terrorism, said that WikiLeaks materials showing that the United States had killed civilians, for instance, could help Al Qaeda.

“Perception is important because it provides a good environment for recruitment, for fund-raising and for support for Al Qaeda’s wider audience and objectives,” he said.

The article went on to say that had it not been for Wiki-leaks, Al Qaeda would have found other propaganda to help recruitment efforts / fuel anti-American sentiment (apologies, I cannot seem to find that version of the article).

I am all for preventative peace-building, tackling the root causes of terrorism before they take hold. But taking the moral high-ground [not using drones] in areas where terrorism already has deep roots would be–in my opinion–much more counter-productive to the global war on terror.  

Drone strikes have become more transparent (in their disclosure), and allegedly more targeted to minimize collateral damage and civilian deaths. When assessing national security programs, it is helpful to think of them in terms of opportunity cost–what is the cost of the next best alternative / inaction. If the next best alternative is traditional warfare, then we already know the costs are too high and results unsustainable. The cost of inaction is high too; pulling out of the war on terror may seem like an attractive short term solution. But allowing terrorism to spread with relative impunity will only make future anti-terrorism efforts all the more costly and complex.

Am I an “Obama foreign policy apologist”? Perhaps, however I see the use of drones as the lesser of many evils. A world in which drone strikes and terrorism (and warfare and human rights violations in general) do not exist is a beautiful normative vision, but is unfortunately not a reality today.

 

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2 thoughts on “Conflict Watch: Drone Week(s), It’s a Bad Week to be a Terrorist

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