Commuting to War

by , October 30, 2009

In my book Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism (the term Global War on Terrorism coined by the Bush administration has been replaced by the Obama administration with the presumably kinder and gentler Overseas Contingency Operation), I wrote:

  • "If parts of the are on terrorism are to be fought in places such as Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, and Pakistan – especially if it is not possible for U.S. ground troops to operate in those countries – UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles or drones] could be key assets for finding and targeting al-Qaeda operatives because of their ability to cover large swaths of land for extended periods of time in search of targets." (p. 91)
  • "Armed UAVs offer a cost-effective alternative to deploying troops on the ground or having to call in manned aircraft to perform combat missions against identified terrorist targets." (p. 91)
  • "One can only wonder what might have happened if the spy Predator that took pictures of a tall man in white robes surrounded by a group of people – believed by many intelligence analysts to be Osama bin Laden – in the fall of 2000 had instead been an armed Predator capable of immediately striking the target." (p. 92)

Since then (Winning the Un-War was originally published in hardback in 2006 and paperback in 2007), the "promise" of UAVs has become a reality. As reported by the New York Times in March of this year, the Air Force has "195 Predators and 28 Reapers, a new and more heavily armed cousin of the Predator," and "the total number of military drones has soared to 5,500, from 167 in 2001." According to the Air Force, "Predators and Reapers shot missiles on 244 of the 10,949 missions in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008." And the number of Predator strikes in Pakistan has increased dramatically – 41 strikes since President Obama took office compared to 34 for all of 2008. In what one blogger described as "the wet dream of every kid who grew up playing Microsoft Flight Simulator," UAV operators are literally commuting to war – operating Predators and Reapers from thousands of miles away, in places like Nevada, Arizona, and New Jersey.

Reflecting back on what I originally wrote, UAVs are a double-edged sword. I still believe my analysis of the potential operational utility of UAVs is valid. And the reality is, as CIA Director Leon Panetta told the Pacific Council on International Policy in May, "Very frankly, it’s the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al-Qaeda leadership [in Pakistan]." Predators and Reapers are not a panacea, but they are a better alternative to more boots on the ground in a Muslim country.

That said, the best, most advanced, most technologically sophisticated weaponry is only as good as the decisions made about how, where, and when to use it. First and foremost – like virtually everything else about using military force, whether on a small or massive scale – reliable and accurate intelligence is paramount. More simply put, a UAV strike is only effective if it kills (or destroys) the correct target. Unfortunately, mission success is all too often defined as killing whatever target was in the sights rather than killing the threat you were trying to kill. A good example of this phenomenon is that since President Obama took office, 15 of 41 drone attacks in Pakistan have been aimed at Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, who was finally killed in August – along with one of his wives and her father. In other words, the 14 previous attacks targeted the wrong person and, if there were fatalities, killed the wrong people.

The use of UAVs – as is the case with any military action – also highlights the problem of collateral damage. The best estimate is that 1,000 people have been killed as a result of drone strikes in Pakistan. At one end of the spectrum, the News in Pakistan claims 687 innocent civilians and only 14 militants have been killed by drones. At the other end, the blog The Long War Journal estimates that only 10 percent of the casualties have been civilians. Another analysis by the New America Foundation based on news accounts (very similar to how IraqBodyCount.org estimates civilian casualties in Iraq) came up with a number of 30 percent for civilian casualties, or about 300. According to the New America Foundation, "The Obama administration has dramatically ratcheted up the American drone program in Pakistan. Since President Obama took office, U.S. drone strikes have killed about a half-dozen militant leaders along with hundreds of others, a quarter of whom were civilians." Whatever the right number is, we cannot ignore what David Kilcullen, an adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, who wrote the Army’s counterinsurgency manual, from 2006 to 2008, and Andrew Exum, an Army officer in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2002 to 2004, wrote in the New York Times in May:

  • "[E]very one of these dead noncombatants represents an alienated family, a new desire for revenge, and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially even as drone strikes have increased.
  • "The persistence of these attacks on Pakistani territory offends people’s deepest sensibilities, alienates them from their government, and contributes to Pakistan’s instability."

The problem of collateral damage may be exacerbated if the increasing use of UAVs and other unmanned weapon systems is viewed by operators as a video game, thereby desensitizing them to the devastating effects of war. Indeed, everything happens on a screen, not in "real life." As a result, collateral damage may seem less real.

There is also the very important question of whether the Taliban and even al-Qaeda in Pakistan are enough of a threat to the U.S. to warrant continued drone attacks, especially if we know a priori there will be collateral damage and a subsequent anti-American backlash resulting in more terrorist recruits. In other words, are the costs worth the benefits (such as they are)? Indeed, at this stage – more than eight years after 9/11 – we even have to be willing to ask how important Osama bin Laden is as a target. Is bin Laden still an operational threat with sufficient global reach that killing him would make any difference in the threat to us? Is the radicalization infusing the Muslim world being led by bin Laden and al-Qaeda in Pakistan? If not, then continued drone attacks in Pakistan are a problem, not a solution. According to Kilcullen and Exum:

"Having Osama bin Laden in one’s sights is one thing. Devoting precious resources to his capture or death, rather than focusing on protecting the Afghan and Pakistani populations, is another. The goal should be to isolate extremists from the communities in which they live. The best way to do this is to adopt policies that build local partnerships. Al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies must be defeated by indigenous forces – not from the United States, and not even from Punjab, but from the parts of Pakistan in which they now hide. Drone strikes make this harder, not easier."

Finally, as I wrote in Winning the Un-War:

"Perhaps UAVs – with their ability to locate and destroy targets remotely without putting a pilot at risk – will be the revolutionary weapon of the war on terrorism. But more important is knowing what is truly revolutionary about the war on terrorism is that, although the military will be part of the war, it is not a war that ultimately will be won by the military." (p. 96)

Sadly, we still haven’t seemed to figure that out.

Read more by Charles V. Peña