Normative Narratives


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

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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The (Real Beginning of the) End of Team America World Police Part 3(? 4? 5?, I’ve Lost Count…)

I started my narrative on this topic with a two-part political and economic analysis of current U.S. Defense Policy. I then wrote a piece on the true cost of the war on terror, and more recently a piece on how Europe’s shrinking military expenditure is hurting it’s credibility as a meaningful security partner to the United States. Current U.S. military policy has long been an issue affecting America’s fiscal space, constraining resources for social programs which compromise our future growth prospects and social mobility, thereby perpetuating rising inequality in America. At the heart of the matter is the uneven proportion of Global Security expenditure that America pays. Today, President Obama signaled he is of similar mind on the subject.

“Taken together, the president’s words and deeds added up to an effort to move the country away from the perpetual war on terrorism envisioned by his predecessor, George W. Bush, toward a more limited campaign against particular groups that would eventually be curtailed even if the threat of terrorism could never be eliminated.

‘Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue,’ Mr. Obama said. ‘But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.’

Mr. Obama rejected the notion of an expansive war on terrorism and instead articulated a narrower understanding of the mission for the United States. ‘Beyond Afghanistan, we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’ but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America,’ he said.

‘Neither I, nor any president, can promise the total defeat of terror,’ Mr. Obama added. ‘We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society. But what we can do — what we must do — is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend.’”

“As our fight enters a new phase, America’s legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion,” Mr. Obama said. “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance. For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power — or risk abusing it.”

“The changes reflect a conclusion by the White House that the core of Al Qaeda has been decimated by years of strikes and the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. But in the speech, the president said that the threat had evolved in a complicated mosaic of dangers from affiliated groups and homegrown terrorists, like the bombers who attacked the Boston Marathon.”

As is to be expected, Republicans were critical of Obama’s realistic, transparent, straightforward and even-handed speech:

“Speaker John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, issued 10 questions to the president in reaction to previews of his speech. “Is it still your administration’s goal to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda?” he asked. “If you are scaling back the use of unmanned drones, which actions will you be taking as a substitute to ensure Al Qaeda’s defeat? Is it your view that if the U.S. is less aggressive in eliminating terrorists abroad, the threat of terrorist attacks will diminish on its own?”

Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, was sharper in reaction. ‘The president’s speech today will be viewed by terrorists as a victory,’ he said. ‘Rather than continuing successful counterterrorism activities, we are changing course with no clear operational benefit.'”

First to address Senator Chambliss, are you sir a moron? how could the winding down of the war on terror have “no clear operational benefit”? Does making a military mission less costly both in dollar terms and American lives have no effect on the operational benefit of The War on Terror? Not to mention the impact on public opinion of the U.S. abroad (which is directly related to terrorism). Or do you not consider the costs of an operation unless the money is going to those lazy “takers”? (i.e. any social program the G.O.P. will fight tooth and nail). If anything, we should have much sooner reconsidered the operational benefit of the War on Terror in the first place (which has been marginal at best, as highlighted by recent sectarian violence in Iraq).

Speaker Boehner’s questions are more substantive; I have actually grown to like Senator Boehner, I almost pity him for the impossible job he has of trying to legitimize the current cluster-fuck of ridiculous soundbites and indefensible policy advocacy that has come to define the G.O.P. I’m sure Mr. Boehner did not imagine his constituents would be so unrealistic and uncompromising that his time as House Speaker would be marked as a period of historically low congressional approval ratings.

But back to Congressman Boehner’s Questions. Questions 1 and 2 (“Is it still your administration’s goal to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda?” he asked. “If you are scaling back the use of unmanned drones, which actions will you be taking as a substitute to ensure Al Qaeda’s defeat?”) were already addressed by President Obama in his speech:

“But what we can do — what we must do — is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend.”  

Obviously Al-Qaeda would be considered a “network that poses a direct danger to us”, probably the primary of such networks. One has to question whether John was not sleeping through the President’s speech with questions like those. And to expect a President to openly discuss his defense strategies, probably our most important national security secret, is not exactly proposing a reasonable question.

President Obama also alluded to the answer to Speaker Boehner’s 3rd question in that very same breath. Mr. Boehner asked, “Is it your view that if the U.S. is less aggressive in eliminating terrorists abroad, the threat of terrorist attacks will diminish on its own?”

The answer to that is, of course not. The President stated he planned to “make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold”, but what exactly does that mean? It could only mean putting more resources into preventative peace-building and diplomacy efforts, as I have advocated for here at NN.

Conflict resolution theory tells us that the majority of todays armed conflicts are “Protracted Social Conflicts”. This means that their roots are in human rights violations, which almost always involve inadequate service delivery and security being provided by a country’s government. In situations like this, conflict is likely to break out. When conflicts break out, there is no military to keep terrorist activities at bay (assuming the regime in power is not allied with extremist groups to begin with).

Terrorist groups seize onto this absence of government human rights “duty bearers” and begin to provide services and security themselves. People on the ground, having no other option other than living in extreme poverty and extreme discomfort, welcome these terrorists in with open arms. Terrorists are able to buy goodwill, gain footholds for their operations, and attract a new generation of young Jihadists.

The only way the President can prevent new terrorist groups from forming is to scale up the capacity of strong, democratic governments in developing countries around the world (or factions within countries that do not have democratic governments). If America undertakes this much more noble pursuit, we can build sustainable relationships that foster greater economic and security alliances, rather than destroying nations and then attempting to build them back up from scratch, which is costly in money, time, and lives.

We must remember that building these relationships is not easy. Transitions to democracy and a higher standard of living take time, and the process is not always linear. Vested interests will never give up easily, as they have so much to lose as society reaps the benefits of modernization, and more resources are invested into basic infrastructure as well as physical and human capital.

Though we face an uphill battle, we must never falter in our fight to promote peace, security, and mutually beneficial and environmentally sustainable economic relationships. Only through cooperation and coordination can the global community confront and overcome the issues we collectively face in the 21st century and beyond.

And we must always remember we are not alone in this fight. Our Allies around the world remain committed to the same vision as us. Institutions such as the UN, NATO, WB, IMF, WHO and countless other international, national, and regoinal institutions, alongside non-governmental organizations, charities, and civil society organizations join our ranks. The day when extreme poverty and human rights violations are no longer a threat is just beyond the horizon, and I look forward doing whatever I can to work towards that future.