This post is the conclusion to my write-up on the American Security Project‘s U.S. Drones Policy: Strategic Frameworks and Measuring Effects, which I introduced and delved into yesterday. The event was moderated by Joshua Foust, Fellow for Asymmetric Operations at ASP and columnist for PBS and The Atlantic Monthly. The panel of speakers consisted of Aaron Zelin, Fellow at The Washington Institute and the editor of Jihadology.net, Will McCants, research analyst at CNA, adjunct faculty at the John’s Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and the editor of Jihadica.com, and Christine Fair, assistant professor in the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University and renowned expert on South Asia and Islamist groups. Following a discussion, there was a brief question and answer session. You can also watch a video or listen to audio of the discussion here.
Will McCants added some broad perspective on the drone program to the discussion. Before September 11, the drone program existed but was impotent. After, once the United States understood that al Qaeda was devoted to killing American civilians in large numbers wherever they could be found, drone policy went in the opposite direction. More specifically, our drone policy is a reaction to previous overreactions to terrorism using conventional forces, requiring less commitment and a more targeted campaign. Yemen has been the test case for this strategy.
Evaluating its success takes a series of questions that we currently lack the data to answer fully. We have a pretty good idea that, from a resources perspective, drone strikes are far less draining than a conventional campaign. We are less certain whether they reduce the threat of another large attack on the United States homeland, it appears that they do, as no such attack has occurred. But are drone strikes breeding more terrorists than they eliminate, as some critics propose? That is a much more complicated question. First, there are several confounding variables. The number of insurgents has increased in Yemen since we’ve started the drone campaign there, but that may have more to do with the insurgency currently being waged than our actions. Perhaps more important than our strikes is the support we have to give local governments in order to launch them. This often takes the form of security assistance to regimes we would not otherwise aid, such as Yemen, which makes us appear to be suppressing dissent. This support likely has a greater effect on radicalization than the strikes themselves.
Aaron Zelin provided the terrorist perspective on our drone campaigns, pulled from the documents of al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other drone targets. Al Qaeda has been approaching the drone campaign as an espionage problem. Drone strikes are actually more human intensive than most “manned” missions as, aside from pilots, technicians, analysts, and a team of lawyers, they require a large network of spies and informants to determine who to strike when. As drones work best with assets on the ground, Bin Laden has called Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area, where we have launched extensive strikes, a “circle of espionage.” As a result, many Jihadis have moved out of the tribal areas for urban centers or have even gone back to Afghanistan. Drone strikes have also added to al Qaeda’s paranoia, with documents discouraging even talking to journalists.
Our drone campaigns have also degraded terrorist’s abilities to gather in one place for long periods of time, which in turn hurts training. Pakistan no longer hosts month-long bomb-making camps, instead compressing the curriculum resulting in far less skilled bomb makers. In Yemen, insurgents are forced to rely on mobile, roving training camps that meet briefly and are then disbanded.
Unlike al Qaeda, the Taliban has not been referencing drone strikes on their materials. This is largely because it has not disrupted their activities to the same extent as they simply adapted by moving their operations back into Afghanistan. Al Qaeda, on the other hand, had been making a big show of prosecuting alleged spies and informants, even crucifying one on camera. They have also been vocal about the problems of signature strikes, which kill targets based only on “patterns of life” that may indicate that they are terrorists, and dead civilians. Somewhat ironically, al Qaeda propaganda has even attacked the United States on rule of law, fair trials, and killing Anwar Al-Alwaki and his son, American citizens. Despite their best efforts, however, blowback has been minimal, as there have been very few revenge attacks against the U.S. in Pakistan.
Joshua Foust recapped main points in the discussion, leading to the question and answer session. Though the goal was to have an empirical discussion, even the panel of experts was forced to make many educated guesses as data simply isn’t sufficiently available. From the little data we do have, we can tell that drone strikes are very useful but we aren’t sure of the aftereffects. Christine Fair took a question on compensating families of Pakistani civilians killed in drone strikes. While that’s what we do in Afghanistan and it’s been on the table in Pakistan, currently there is neither the infrastructure in place nor conclusive evidence on individual dead civilians to make that possible. Foust answered a question about what other major powers are learning from us with regards to drones, which he explained wasn’t much as our lessons aren’t particularly relevant to them. Aside from, to some extent, Israel, other countries are lightyears behind our unmanned aerial vehicles. Also, remote piloted aircraft are a very specific weapon. They work well against insurgents in countries such as Yemen, but would fail if, for example, Russia tried to use them in Georgia or Tajikistan, because they can be easily shot down. On anti-drone rhetoric, Fair noted that in Pakistan, many of the opponents of drones live in areas without drone strikes and hence without a major terrorist footprint. Those most vocal against drones tend to be those who have never seen them in action. Zelin answered why other terrorist groups have not been echoing the anti-drone rhetoric of al Qaeda and some members of the western press, as their cause is less concerned with local civilian casualties.
This post by AlexOlesker was first published at CTOvision.com.
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