Tactically Precise, Strategically Incontinent?

by Kenneth Anderson

I think the Washington Post gets the right position on the utility and effectiveness of drones in targeted killing — including their limits.  The editorial principally addresses two different things, both raised in John Brennan’s summary statement of the administration’s counterterrorism policy at Harvard Law School a week ago.  The first is the question of whether there is a “legal geography of war,” as I have put it; the administration’s short answer, as is mine and the Post’s, is “no.”  The second is the question of whether drones, just as a strategic matter for the US (meaning, looking solely to US interests, rather than a universal moral or welfare-maximizing policy for everyone, all sides and all civilians), have knock-on bad effects that should put a damper on them.

A few days ago I criticized the eminent columnist David Ignatius and his view that the US is “addicted” to drones.  His view is that the “blowback” effects of drone use can easily, and apparently already do, outweigh their utility to the United States, used to the extent we do today and propose to expand into the future — and that is so, he says, even though he concedes that they are indeed more precise and sparing of collateral damage.  I criticized that quite sharply — mostly because he then stops short, without telling us what the alternative is, except to launch fewer or no attacks.  After all, he doesn’t seem to want to urge that we launch attacks with less precise weaponry.  I guess I’d sum up Ignatius’ view — I think this is fair and a characterization he’d agree with, not snark — that he regards drones as tactically precise, strategically incontinent.

(Update:  Chris got an excellent discussion of this going on his FB page; one of the comments is posted in the comments below, and I’m going to cut and paste the rest into the comments in the next day, in case anyone wants to follow that discussion or join in.  Thanks to Mark Shulman and Dan Goldfisher for taking time to respond, and I’ll move their comments from FB here in the next day.)

That could conceivably be true, as a matter of fact about US strategy; it can never be ruled out as a possibility.  But for the reasons stated in my earlier critique of Ignatius’ view, I wouldn’t want to start from that position as a matter of strategy.  It leaves one with a dangling question for Ignatius of whether, if one presses to know what to actually do, taken down to brass tacks it amounts to saying “don’t attack,” even with civilian-sparing weapons, because of generalized blowback.  I agree thoroughly with the Obama administration that this is exactly the time to strike, when Al Qaeda is weakened but far from finished, in retreat but not in organizational collapse, seeking new safe havens but not well-entrenched as they were in Afghanistan.  I applaud the Obama administration’s ruthlessness and relentlessness.

Nonetheless, drones and targeted killing have their limits, and the Washington Post editorial is correct to note them.  The virtue is that drones are not a counterinsurgency campaign on the ground. (Though one should never underestimate just how much ground level intelligence is required in order to make the apparently free-floating, death-in-the-jet-stream drone strategy successful.  The necessity of that granular intelligence for drone success in targeted killing appears to me the strongest argument for the CIA’s involvement in operations, but that’s another discussion.) But drones and targeted killing, while taking the fight directly to the terrorists and their leadership, cannot stabilize the places where they seek haven.  They can’t fix Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia.   The WP’s point is well-taken, but it is not an argument against the aggressive and ruthless use of drones and targeted killing (nor does the Post intend it to be).  I would add, though the Post does not, that it is not obvious that there is anything that could stabilize, let alone fix, any of these places.

Ignatius, I believe, would argue, contra me and the Post’s editors, that the aggressive use of drones makes it much more difficult, perhaps even impossible, to stabilize any of those places, and indeed affirmatively destabilizes them.  Two responses.  First, he might of course be right, but it is a counterfactual that we do not have the luxury of testing.  We have to make choices today with the weapons and strategic tools available against the terrorists, and drones are the most useful in actually attacking transnational terrorists.  We don’t have the possibility of trying out different alternatives to see what works best and then backtracking in time to revamp things according to our experiments.  As I remarked in my first post on Ignatius’ views, blowback is always a consideration, but a second order strategic issue (Cf. George McClellan), and one that runs particularly to counterinsurgency, not pure counterterrorism; the Obama administration is right to try and get us out of counterinsurgency wars, and so blowback is frankly less of an issue than it might otherwise be.

Second, insofar as this is an argument to use drones less while recognizing their utility — that’s fine, strategic choices involve tradeoffs.  But in that case, doesn’t this amount to counsel to attack less?  Because the alternatives forms of attack are likely to lead to greater civilian harm, and that is not a good idea.  That includes the supposedly less bellicose alternatives — such as sending the local gendarmerie to attempt an arrest; is it really morally okay to insist on using the local forces, send out twenty police and easily have twenty police casualties, rather than using the force that makes sense in the circumstances, a drone strike that minimizes collateral damage?  Again, it is easy to say that drones are addictive — and then stop short of drawing the implication, which is either attack less or not at all, or else use less discriminating means.  The alternatives are often much less discriminating even if they consist of “police” alternatives that sound conceptually less harmful — it’s just law enforcement, not war! — but in actual fact are far more damaging, to themselves and others.


10 Responses

  1. I am going to challenge one of your premises, Ken:  You say that the U.S. lacks the “luxury of testing” Ignatius’s hypothesis (perhaps an implied hypothesis), that our use of drones decreases stability in the very places where ultimately it is stability that may best lead to a positive strategic outcome.  You say that “We have to make choices today with the weapons and strategic tools available…”  Certainly true, but we do not need to derive policy on the presumptive use of any particular weapons system that is available to us.  Of course, we do not – as you note there are alternatives that are far more destructive and less discriminating in the manner and scope of violence they deliver.  In that sense, each available alternative sits on a continuum on multiple facets, including its precision/discrimination, collateral damage, proximity, etc. – which together lead not only to death and destruction of targets, but attendant strategic impacts, including as relates to stability.  So, are we forced to employ drones in the manner in which we currently do?  Or do we have the ability to not use them, either entirely or in some of the circumstances in which they currently are being deployed?  Of course we have the luxury of testing alternative, and perhaps significantly reduced, deployment of this current weapon of choice.  The blowback issue cannot be disposed of in quite so conclusory a manner.  And given the nature of the threat, and what fuels it, we need to be willing to challenge our assumptions about the successes derived from these attacks, as wel as about whether, both by the successful attacks and the errant ones, the inflammation of civilians, tribes and governments undermines the broader strategic outcomes we profess to seek.  At the end of the day, our hand is not forced by the availability of a weapons system, and the manner in which each is utilized or held back must be determined on the best assessment of how military assets further preferred strategic outcomes.

  2. This comment by Mark Shulman transferred from FB:

    Anderson’s last sentence seems to be key to his argument, but I just don’t understand it. How are the range of law enforcement options more damaging to us and others than raining death from the sky? Aren’t we fighting for a system based on the rule of law?

  3. KA responding on FB to Mark Shulman:

    What I was trying to say, not so clearly alas, is that the drones are not raining death from the skies; they are far more discriminating than that image, and more discriminating than the realistic alternatives for using force.

    The last proposal I heard for dealing with Al Aulaqi, that we send Yemeni police to arrest him, seems to me strategically impossible but also deeply immoral. A police raid on an AQAP will result in many dead police; I mentioned this at a meeting with a bunch of Yemeni officials a year or so ago, and the senior official made a great objection in the meeting, then came to me afterwards and said, please tell the USG to use drones to strike at him. Our people cannot take him and they do not deserve to die trying. The drones are far more precise.

  4. Response from Chris B to KA:

    Ken clarified that pretty quickly. One thing I would add, picking up a theme from Mark’s last sentence is that I don’t see drone strikes as antithetical to the rule of law… however, I think we have to do a better job of explaining when they can and cannot be used. Harold Koh is obviously trying to work that one out. Given where we are going with our counterterrorism/ counterinurgency strategy, that is something that needs more thought… like from you two!

  5. Mark Shulman responding to KA:

    I appreciate Ken’s concern and amplification. And I agree that the drone strikes are not per se antithetical to the rule of law but only if the legal case is made convincingly. We still assume that killing someone is unprivileged unless it is privileged. Outside actual theaters of war, the burden to establish that privilege falls fully on the party launching the strike. As long we are still trying to work that out, we’re not giving a strong signal that the conduct is compliance and in a good faith effort to promote the rule of law.

  6. KA – that’s where we left it on FB and thought we should move the discussion here in case anyone else wanted to read the exchange and weigh in.

  7. There have been assertions by US military officials that drones might also be used against Somali pirates in an aggressive as well as surveillance role.  It is hard to see how this expanded use would be justified unless pirates are conflated with terrorists. http://piracy-law.com/2011/09/21/drones-v-pirates/

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. […] Book Review Editor Kenneth Anderson blogs at Opinio Juris on the use of drones in warfare, and provides a critique of David Ignatius’ […]

  2. […] blog post arguing against David Ignatius’ claim that the US is “addicted” to drones, see Opinio Juris, “Tactically Precise, Strategically Incontinent?” […]

  3. […] blog post arguing against David Ignatius’ claim that the US is “addicted” to drones, see Opinio Juris, “Tactically Precise, Strategically Incontinent?” […]