Tag: yemen

Drones Risk Putting US on ‘Slippery Slope’ to Perpetual War

As the New York Times reports, the Stimson Center today released a report warning that “the Obama administration’s embrace of targeted killings using armed drones risks putting the United States on a ‘slippery slope’ into perpetual war.” The Washington Post, the Guardian and Vox all lead their articles on the report with that warning.

The slippery slope point probably isn’t new to most readers. But it’s worth focusing on here, both because the argument is often misstated or misunderstood, and because, in this case, I helped make it. The report’s task force, co-chaired by retired General John Abizaid, former head of U.S. Central Command and Rosa Brooks of Georgetown Law, included working groups. I was on one that considered, among other things, what danger drones create for U.S. foreign policy. The report largely reflects those we identified: the erosion of sovereignty, blowback from those in targeted countries, drone strikes’ tendency to undermine democratic oversight, and the slippery slope problem.

The report puts those concerns in context. It points out that: drones can serve wise or dumb policies; that most drones are for surveillance or other non-strike uses; and that it is drone strikes that occur off declared battlefields that have generated the most controversy. The report notes that past military innovations, like cruise missiles, raised similar concerns by making waging war easier.

The report rejects several common complaints about drones. It denies that they create a reckless, “playstation mentality” among pilots. It explains that drones are not more prone than other weapons cause civilian casualties.

Having delimited the circumstances where drones raise concerns, the report goes into considerable causal detail, at least compared to most reports of this kind, about what the trouble is. The blowback, oversight, and sovereignty problems are relatively easy to understand, in theory. The tricky part is measuring the harm.

Kill or Capture?

In the latest issue of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs, I review Newsweek reporter Daniel Klaidman’s book Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency. Although some hawkish critics smear President Obama as weak, bumbling, and easily manipulated by America’s enemies, Klaidman reveals how our “covert commander in chief” has tightened his grip over the secretive program of targeted killings and their expanded use into Somalia and Yemen, beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. The president has meanwhile claimed the authority to hold terrorism suspects in prolonged detention indefinitely without trial. On this issue in particular, as I conclude in my review:

The reader is naturally drawn to realize the book’s underlying point: America’s lack of a long-term detention policy may be perversely incentivizing kills over captures.

 Check it out.

Drones, Special Operations, and Whimsical Wars

Asked the last week on 60 Minutes how many shooting wars the United States is in, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta took a moment to answer. He eventually said we are going after al Qaeda in Pakistan and its “nodes” in Somalia, Yemen, and North Africa. Somehow, he left out the indefinite war we have going in Afghanistan.

It’s no wonder that Panetta can’t keep track of the wars he’s supposed to manage. On top of Afghanistan and the drone campaigns, 12,000 U.S. special operations forces are distributed around dozens of countries, increasingly outside declared war zones, where they train foreign militaries, collect intelligence, and occasionally launch lethal raids. As just reported in the Washington Post, some of these forces are now operating a dozen bases across Northern Africa, where their activities include overseeing contractors flying surveillance aircraft. Despite the Obama administration’s claims of great progress in fighting al Qaeda, the global shadow war shows no signs of abating.

The official rationale for using force across the world is that al Qaeda is global. But that’s true only thanks to a capacious definition of al Qaeda that imposes a sense of false unity of disparate groups. The always-overrated remnant of the organization that sponsored the 9/11 attacks barely exists anymore, even in Pakistan. Our counterterrorism efforts are directed mostly against others: terrorists that take up al Qaeda’s name and desire to kill westerners but have limited links to the real McCoy, as in Yemen and North Africa, and insurgents friendly to jihadists but mostly consumed by local disputes, like the Taliban in Afghanistanal Shabaab in Somalia, and al Qaeda’s Islamist allies in southern Yemen. Like the phony Communist monolith in the Cold War, the myth of a unified, global “al Qaeda” makes actions against vaguely-linked entities—many with no obvious interest in the United States—seem like a coherent campaign against globe trotting menace bent on our destruction.

The real reason we are fighting so much these days is that war is too easy. International and domestic restraints on the use of U.S. military power are few. And unrestrained power tends to be exercised. Presidents can use it whimsically, at least until they do something costly that creates a backlash and wakes up public opposition. Drones and special operations forces made this problem worse.

Most of the world is what the military calls a permissive environment, especially since the end of the Cold War. Most places lack forces capable of keeping our military out. Many potential allies invite it. The risks traditionally associated with war—invasion, mass death, etc.—are now alien to Americans. Since the draft ended, the consequences of even bad wars for most of us are minor: unsettling media stories and mildly higher taxes deferred by deficits. That’s why, as Nuno Monteiro argues, the U.S. military was already quite busy in the 1990s despite the absence of real enemies.

Because war is so cheap, the public has little reason to worry much about it. That leaves elected representatives without any electoral incentive to restrain presidential war powers. No surprise then that the imperial presidency grew as American power did. Technology gains and secrecy exacerbate the problem. Even more than strategic bombing from high altitude, which already prevented U.S. casualties, drones cheapen warfare. Covert raids are riskier, of course, but secrecy limits public appreciation of those risks.

The president and his advisors assure us that they use these forces only after solemn debate and nights spent (badly) reading just war theory. But a White House that debates the use of force only with itself short-circuits the democratic process. That is not just a constitutional problem but a practical one. Broad debate among competing powers generally produces better decisions than narrower, unilateral ones. That is why is it is naïve to suggest, as John Fabian Witt did last week in a New York Times op-ed, that the executive branch is developing sensible legal institutions to manage the gray area between war and peace occupied by drone strikes. What’s needed are checks and balances. That means Congress needs to use its war powers.

First, Congress should rewrite the 2001 Authorization of Military Force, which has morphed into a legal rationale for doing whatever presidents want in the name of counterterrorism. That bill authorized force against the organizers of the September 11 attacks and those who aided them, which seemed to mean al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and maybe Pakistan. The new law should state that acts of war, including drone strikes, in other places require a new authorization of force. If Congress is for bombing stuff in Yemen and Somalia, it should debate those missions. Second, Congress should reform the convoluted laws governing the deployment of special operations forces, making their use more onerous and transparent. Those forces should engage in covert action only after a presidential finding, as with the CIA. Third, Congress should require that taxes or offsets fund wars. That would increase debate about their worth.

The trouble, as already noted, is that Congress has no interest in doing these things. Congressional leaders are today more interested in policing leaks about the president’s unilateral exercise of war powers than in restraining them. Short of a military disaster involving special operations forces or drones, this seems unlikely to change in the short term. In the longer term, we need a restoration of Congress’ institutional identity. Even without an electoral reason, politicians should want to exercise war powers simply because they can—because people like power. That’s the assumption behind Edward Corwin’s notion that the constitution’s is an “invitation to struggle” over foreign policy. Something has obstructed Congress’ desire to struggle. Those concerned by the president’s promiscuous use of force should try to identify and remove the obstruction.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Yemen, Drones, and the Imperial Presidency

Based on a broad theory of executive power, President Obama, and possibly his successor, has the authority to target people for death—including American citizens—without a semblance of transparency, accountability, or congressional consent. Since 9/11, officials and analysts have touted drone strikes as the most effective weapon against al Qaeda and its affiliates. Drones have become a tool of war without the need to declare one. The latest front is Yemen, where a dramatic escalation of drone strikes could be enlisting as many militants as they execute.

“In Yemen, U.S. airstrikes breed anger, and sympathy for al-Qaeda,” a headline blared in last week’s Washington Post. The evidence of radicalization comes from more than 20 interviews with tribal leaders, victims’ relatives, human rights activists, and officials from southern Yemen, an area where U.S. drone strikes have targeted suspected militants affiliated with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The escalating campaign of drone strikes kills civilians along with alleged militants. Tribal leaders and Yemeni officials say these strikes have angered tribesmen who could be helping to prevent AQAP from growing more powerful.

According to the Post, in 2009, U.S. officials claimed that AQAP had nearly 300 core members. Yemeni officials and tribal leaders say that number has grown to 700 or more, with hundreds of tribesmen joining its ranks to fight the U.S.-backed Yemeni government. “That’s not the direction in which the drone strikes were supposed to move the numbers,” wrote the Atlantic’s Robert Wright.

As the majority of U.S. missile assaults shift from Pakistan to Yemen—allowing foreign policy planners to wage undeclared wars on multiple fronts—Americans should pay close attention to a few important and complicating factors that make the conflict in Yemen unique. First, the self-proclaimed Marxist state of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) only merged with its northern neighbor, the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), in 1990. In 1994, the two countries fought a bloody civil war that did not result in a smooth reunification. The International Crisis Group’s “Breaking Point? Yemen’s Southern Question” summarizes competing North-South narratives:

Under one version, the war laid to rest the notion of separation and solidified national unity. According to the other, the war laid to rest the notion of unity and ushered in a period of Northern occupation of the South.

Media reports asserting that AQAP is taking advantage of the South’s hunger for independence should be understood in the context of this Northern-Southern divide. Rather than encourage the Yemeni government to respond to southern demands for greater local autonomy, Washington’s tactics are helping the U.S.-backed Yemeni government repress Southern separatists. Indeed, many residents in Abyan, in southern Yemen, claim that the Yemeni government intentionally ceded territory to domestic enemies in order to frighten the West into ensuring more support against the indigenous uprising.

These developments are troubling, as the escalation of drone strikes could be creating the self-fulfilling prophecy of helping alleged AQAP-linked militants gain ground and increasing local sympathy for their cause. As Ben Friedman wrote recently, the misperception that comes with conflating AQAP with the broader insurgency is that it “invites a broad U.S. campaign against Yemen’s southern Islamists, which could heighten their enthusiasm for attacking Americans, creating the menace we feared.” That assessment echoes the sentiment of The Nation’s Jeremy Scahill, who has done intrepid reporting in Yemen. He recently said the campaign being conducted “is going to make it more likely that Yemen becomes a safe haven for those kinds of [terrorist] groups.”

The Oval Office seems to be giving this issue of sympathy short shrift. President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, has publicly argued that the precision of drone strikes limits civilian casualties. However, the New York Times revealed last week that the president and his underlings resort to dubious accounting tricks to low-ball the estimate of civilian deaths, counting “all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants” while the Department of Defense even targets suspects in Yemen “whose names they do not know.” The Times’ article recounts one of the administration’s very first strikes in Yemen:

It killed not only its intended target, but also two neighboring families, and left behind a trail of cluster bombs that subsequently killed more innocents. It was hardly the kind of precise operation that Mr. Obama favored. Videos of children’s bodies and angry tribesmen holding up American missile parts flooded You Tube, fueling a ferocious backlash that Yemeni officials said bolstered Al Qaeda.

As foreign policy planners in Washington deepen our military involvement in Yemen, the American people—rather than focusing on the number of senior al Qaeda killed—should be asking whether we’re killing more alleged militants than our tactics help to recruit.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Washington Post Defines Worst Fears Down

“Al-Qaeda bombmaker represents CIA’s worst fears.”

That’s the headline of a Washington Post story on Yemeni terrorists’ attempt to down a U.S. bound flight by placing a bomb on the body of an operative that turned out to be a CIA and Saudi agent. By straining to alarm readers about the bomb-maker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, the story makes three errors.

First, by defining the CIA’s “worst fears” as “a highly skilled terrorist determined to attack the United States,” the Post underestimates the imaginative capacity of intelligence officials and overrates Asiri’s prowess. The article uncritically quotes House Homeland Security Committee chairman Peter King’s claim that “Asiri is an evil genius. He is constantly expanding, he is constantly adjusting.” Whatever King means by “expanding,” “failing” would have been a better choice of words. In just one of the four Asiri plots mentioned in article did his bomb detonate properly. That one killed only its bearer, al-Asiri’s brother. The nearby target, Saudi’s Prince Nayef, suffered only minor wounds.

Second, the article dubiously claims that two of those plots nearly wreaked great damage:

If it were not for a technical problem (Abdulmutallab’s device failed to detonate) or solid intelligence tips (Saudi counterterrorism officials alerted authorities in Dubai and Britain to intercept the cargo planes), Asiri would have succeeded in staging a catastrophic disaster in American skies.

It is, however, questionable whether Abdulmutallab’s bomb, had it properly detonated, was powerful enough to cause his plane to crash. Even if it opened a hole, the plane might not have crashed.

In the second case, where bombs were hidden in printer cartridges on cargo planes, authorities tell us the detonators probably would have worked and could have downed the planes. But there remains a decent chance that detonation would have occurred while the planes were on the ground. Also, one reason that the devices made it on to cargo planes without detection is that they contain few people and thus justify less security. The death of a crew would have been tragic, of course, but “catastrophic disaster” is a stretch.

The likely success of terrorist plots can’t be assessed simply by looking at the stage of the plot that caused its failure. As Jim Harper argues, plots require success in a series of tasks, each of which drives down the odds of overall success. Bombs that are both difficult to detect and easy to detonate are tough to make, and competent bombers are hard to find. Borders have guards. Intelligence services employ double agents.

The article’s third error is its assertion that the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda has “taken advantage of Yemen’s political turmoil and seized large swaths of territory in the south.” That language conflates the terrorist group with a broader insurgency, confuses their goals, and overstates the group’s potency. The misperception invites a broad U.S. campaign against Yemen’s southern Islamists, which could heighten their enthusiasm for attacking Americans, creating the menace we feared.

Let’s review the record of the bombmaker who is labeled our “worst fear.” His organization has made no discernible progress towards its murky political objectives—though its Islamist protectors have gained territory amid a power vacuum. He has never produced mass violence nor apparently come close, and his most successful act of terrorism was to help his brother blow himself up. His next best effort resulted in a severe crotch burn for the bomber, who survived, talked to U.S. authorities for months, and is serving a life sentence.

That is “success” only under an exceedingly capacious definition. Bin Laden and his acolytes are being grandiose when they talk about bankrupting us. But their boasts show that “terrorism” remains a good label for their misbegotten efforts. They sustain their endeavors by imagining that violence, by generating fear and cost, will cause their enemy to fold and to accommodate their goals. By hyping their menace, we help them cling to that fantasy.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Bin Laden’s Death, One Year On

The killing of Osama bin Laden marked a significant achievement in America’s long war against al Qaeda. Yet, following last year’s Navy SEAL raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, it became clear that disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda did not require the occupation of distant lands. Indeed, even in the absence of the terrorist leader’s death, the sad and simple truth was that the protracted wars of occupation waged in 9/11’s name were an enormous drain on American taxpayers and counterproductive to the goal of stopping terrorism.

Certainly, bin Laden’s killing does not mean the end of al Qaeda, but it does provide another reason to bring our ongoing sacrifice in blood and treasure in Afghanistan to a swift end. Moreover, Americans should be circumspect about planners in Washington expanding the War on Terror to distant enemies in Pakistan, Yemen, the Horn of Africa, and elsewhere. Al Qaeda and its associates have always been manageable security problems, not existential threats to America that require endless war by remote control.

The lesson of 9/11 and its Saudi terrorist financier is that would-be terrorists have reduced their dependence on specific base camps and physical havens. They can plan, organize, and train from virtually anywhere in the world, from Kandahar and Hamburg to Malaysia and Los Angeles. Indeed, the very al Qaeda terrorists responsible for 9/11 not only found sanctuary in poverty-stricken Afghanistan, but also in politically free and economically prosperous countries like Germany, Spain, and the United States. In this respect, policymakers and prominent opinion leaders must stop conflating the punishment of al Qaeda with the creation of stable societies, particularly when propping up corrupt and illegitimate foreign governments and waging counterinsurgency campaigns distracts from the conceptually simpler task of targeted counterterrorism measures to find and eliminate terrorist threats.

Why al Qaeda May Never Die

The first anniversary of the murderous raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideaway presents an opportunity to evaluate the threat al Qaeda now poses. For its part, the Obama administration/reelection campaign seems more interested in using the event to score political points against Mitt Romney. But terrorism alarmists are more focused on al Qaeda itself and are in peak form explaining that, although the organization has been weakened, it still manages to present a grave threat.

Various techniques, honed over a decade, are applied to support this contention. If they are accepted as valid, al Qaeda will cease to exist or be “defeated” only when we run entirely out of tiny groups or individual nuts operating with al Qaeda-like aspirations.

One technique is to espy and assess various “linkages” or “connections” or “ties” or “threads” between and among a range of disparate terrorists or terrorist groups, most of which appear rather gossamer and of only limited consequence on closer examination.

Another is to darkly elevate the vague and the distinctly aspirational as if there were some tangible potential there. Thus, al Qaeda’s “ideology of the global jihad” still “survives,” we are told, and the group is “making provisions for the long term,” is “poised to survive,” “is regrouping,” is “not entirely isolated,” might work with Iran because “they share a common enemy,” has been “embraced” by a Nigerian group with purely local concerns, has provided “strategic advice,” has “inspired” a number of inept would-be amateur terrorists here and there, and has been thinking about plotting the assassination of Barack Obama.

A third technique is to exaggerate the importance and effectiveness of the “affiliated groups” linked to al Qaeda central. In particular, alarmists point to the al Qaeda affiliate in chaotic Yemen, proclaiming it to be the “deadliest” and the “most aggressive” of these and a “major threat.”

Insofar as it threatens the United States, the Yemen group has been elevated by two efforts at international terrorism, both of which failed abysmally.

It apparently supplied the 2009 underwear bomber with an explosive that he was unable to detonate, one that, a test by the BBC suggests, might not have downed his plane even if it had gone off.

The other failure is the foiled effort to set off bombs contained within laser printers on planes bound for the United States in 2010. The organization explained that one of their packages contained a copy of Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations to express its optimism about the operation’s success even as the group promised more such attacks. The optimism, and thus far the promise, have gone unfulfilled.

With that track record, the group may pose a problem or concern to the United States. But it scarcely presents a “major threat.”

Much of the alarmist perspective has been generated in opposition to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s contention last year that “we’re within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda.” Insofar as this declaration can be decoded, it actually seems to be supported by the alarmists’ own admission that “the organization that brought us 9/11 is essentially gone” and that it no longer plays “a major strategic and operational role.”

More important, however, is to supply some degree of quantitative heft to an evaluation of the “threat.”

To the administration’s claim that it is trying “to keep our country safe,” Associated Press intelligence writer Kimberly Dozier rhetorically observes, “How safe remains in question.”

But there is a perfectly valid method for assessing the question and for measuring the risk international terrorism presents to the United States. At current rates, an American’s chance of becoming a victim of terrorism in the United States is about 1 in 3.5 million per year. In comparison, that same American stands a 1 in 22,000 yearly chance of becoming a homicide victim, a 1 in 8,000 chance of perishing in an auto accident, and a 1 in 500 chance of dying from cancer.

These calculations are based, of course, on historical data. However, the terrorism data include not only 9/11, but also the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, and alarmists who would reject such history need to explain why they think terrorists will suddenly become vastly more competent in the future.

But no one seems to be making that argument. Indeed, notes Dozier, U.S. officials say al Qaeda has become less capable of a large attack like 9/11.

She also discloses that these officials made this brave disclosure only on condition of anonymity because they feared that “publicly identifying themselves could make them a target” of terrorists. Meanwhile, however, terrorism specialist Peter Bergen observed to Dozier in heroic full attribution mode that “The last terror attack (in the West) was seven years ago in London,” that there “haven’t been any major attacks in the U.S.,” and that “they are recruiting no-hopers and dead-enders.”

The problem is that there is an endless supply of no-hopers and dead-enders out there.

And also, it appears, of terrorism alarmists.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.