Questioning the Drone Wars

The Washington Post reported Tuesday that we are building more unmanned aerial vehicle bases around the Horn of Africa and Yemen to strike al Qaeda militants.

For a critical take on drone strikes in both places, read what I wrote here in July. I discuss the danger of conflating all jihadist militants with those bent on attacking us. Here’s the bit on Somalia.

Since our recent drone strike in Somalia on leaders of the al-Shabab insurgent group, the administration has claimed that Shabab’s leaders are plotting terrorism against American or western targets. The only evidence given for this assertion is vague claims of Shabab’s ties to Yemeni militants and its claim of responsibility for a 2010 terrorist bombing in Uganda. But that bombing came because Ugandan troops are in the African Union force fighting al-Shabab. While reprehensible, the attack does not show a desire to terrorize Americans.

At the risk of sounding quaint, Congress should make the administration substantiate its claims that Shabab is targeting Americans before we bomb them further. We have enough insurgents to fight these days outside Somalia.

I also questioned the Bush administration’s claims about the Shabaab-al Qaeda nexus here in 2008.

Prior links and several al Qaeda guys in the mix, while worrying, do not mean that organization is going to attack Americans, and is therefore one we should target.

Mixing a “war on terrorism” with the promiscuous designation of Islamic insurgent organizations as terrorists is a recipe for spending the next century tied up in other people’s civil wars. There’s a self-fulfilling aspect to this policy. Declaring war on insurgents may cause them to attack Americans or ally with those who do. There’s evidence that this dynamic is already occurring in Somalia.

Last month, I wrote a post for the National Interest about drone strikes in Pakistan, arguing that no one really knows how well they work. That uncertainty, combined with secrecy, is, I argue, good reason to oppose them. The principle applies elsewhere. Our leaders should have to work harder to make war.

Finally, globe-trotting reporter David Axe criticized U.S. policy toward Somalia in a 2009 Cato Policy Analysis, arguing for a more hands-off approach.