September 8, 2015 10:22AM

Five Problems with the “Secret” Drone Campaign in Syria

Last week’s Washington Post report of the CIA/Special Forces "secret" drone campaign provided fresh evidence that the United States is heading in the wrong direction on the Middle East. Supporters of increased military action abound in Washington, of course, and lacking any better idea, the Obama administration has decided to double down on drones, despite no evidence that such an effort will have any measurable effect on the situation in Syria or Iraq. Instead, the new drone campaign is likely to have (at least) five negative consequences.

First, it will inflame anti-American sentiment in the region. Sadly, as survey after survey shows, anti-Americanism is rampant through the Middle East, even in countries the U.S. counts on as allies in the fight against terrorism and the Islamic State. A recent study shows that the Arab Twitterverse is awash in negative sentiment toward the U.S., illustrating that  And even more relevant, a recent Pew study documents the unsurprising fact that U.S. drone strikes are incredibly unpopular almost everywhere, prompting majorities in several Arab countries to say strikes against the United States for its behavior are justified. More drone strikes will move the U.S. backwards, not forwards.

Second, it will aid Islamic State recruiting and spur more terrorism. After 9/11 the United States went on the offensive, looking to destroy Al Qaeda and kill terrorists abroad before they could visit America to do more harm. What happened, however, was that by killing large numbers of Al Qaeda members and supporters, but also a large number of civilians, and thereby causing immense chaos, strife, and uncertainty, the United States managed to give fresh air to first Al Qaeda’s recruiting efforts and now to the Islamic State’s. In 2001 there were 1878 terrorist attacks in addition to the 9/11 attacks. After 13 years of war on terror there were 16,818 terror attacks worldwide in 2014. In short, the U.S. counterterrorism strategy has been debunked. With every drone strike, the U.S. lends weight to jihadist claims that the U.S. is a malign presence in the Middle East.

Third, it will not change the facts on the ground in Syria. Hawkish critics of Obama's ISIS campaign have correctly noted that the administration’s air campaign in Iraq falls far short of what would be necessary to make a decisive difference on the ground. Pentagon leaders have repeatedly made clear that U.S. troops on the ground would be required to provide a meaningful impact on the fight. Obama, who has clearly been trying to avoid reentering the ground war, may be looking at the drone strikes as a bit of national security theater – to look like he’s doing something without actually doing anything. At any rate, in a situation as complex as the one in Syria, targeted killings via drones won’t do much to swing the battle.

Fourth, it promotes the unhealthy involvement of CIA in military operations. Even though Joint Special Operations Command is reportedly doing all the actual drone strikes, this sort of mission goes against Obama’s previous efforts to pull the CIA back to its traditional mission of intelligence gathering and analysis. The CIA’s involvement may be expedient in the short term, but longer run risks warping the agency’s priorities and organizational culture. We need a CIA committed to independent analysis, not another agency that risks

Fifth, it will accelerate the slide towards greater entanglement in Syria and Iraq. If Obama had a clear strategy in Syria, we could argue about how much the drone campaign would help. In the absence of any strategy, however, the drone campaign represents merely another step down the slippery slope to greater entanglement. Every action the U.S. takes in Syria or Iraq raises the political stakes for the president, increasing the chances that he will take even more aggressive steps to ward off critics and ensure “success.” Unfortunately for the U.S. real success would start by recognizing that greater engagement in Syria is a bad idea.  

February 6, 2013 1:40PM

The President’s Drone Memo

Yesterday, a memo describing the president’s legal justifications for drone attacks against U.S. citizens was obtained and published by NBC’s Michael Isikoff. The memo is a disturbing assertion of discretionary executive power that should concern and frighten all Americans. Unfortunately, the secretive use of drone attacks is one of the few areas of bi-partisan consensus in this highly divisive town, and the public still seems to resoundingly support current counter-terrorism policies.

Not being a foreign policy expert, I will not get into the broader questions of counter-terrorism policies. I agree, as I think most Americans would, that there are times in which the government can justifiably use lethal force against even its own citizens. As always, however, the devil is in the details, and here the details are encapsulated in the broad, discretionary language of the memo. Abstractly agreeing that there are times where a killing is justified does not answer who will determine when to use such force, what standards they are expected to uphold, and what possibilities of review exist for mistakes.

These standards—the “who,” the “how,” and the “possibility of review”—are at the core of the Western legal tradition. Putting process—that is, how something is determined—on equal level with substance—what is determined—is one of the Western legal tradition’s most important contributions. The goal of a legal system is not just to reach the correct result, but to reach that result via a just, open, and reviewable process. Fundamentally, these principles are concessions to our inevitable predilection for errors in thinking, judgment, and fact-gathering. The lynching of an obviously guilty child molester is problematic not just because of the disturbing result, but for how that result was determined.

Those are the principles that we should hold dear when analyzing the memo. Perhaps every drone attack has been the correct call (something we know isn’t true), and high-level officials certainly care about civilian casualties. Nevertheless, if we believe in the principles of the Western legal tradition, we shouldn’t okay with this power if it were in the hands of Mother Theresa.

When the memo is parsed out, the possibilities of error and misuse are obvious. In the most head-scratching line in the memo, the authors redefine the concept of “imminence”:  “the condition that an operational leader presents an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons will take place in the immediate future.”

This redefines “imminence” as a mere “possibility.” In both international law and at common law, “imminence” defines the situation where an individual or a nation can justifiably use self-defense. As Daniel Webster defined it in the Caroline Affair, it is a threat that is “instant, overwhelming, and leav[es] no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.”

The memo defines an “operational leader” as someone who

is personally continually involved in planning terrorist attacks against the United States. Moreover, where the al-Qa’ida member in question has recently been involved in activities posing an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States, and there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities, that member’s involvement in al-Qa’ida’s continuing terrorist campaign against the United States would support the conclusion that the member poses an imminent threat.

In the emphasized section, the looser definition of “imminent” is presumably being used. Thus, to be subject to a kill order, someone need only to have “recently” been involved in “activities” posing the mere possibility of a violent attack against the United States, a broad and expensive definition indeed. Moreover, the words “recently” and “activities” are incredibly vague. There are holes here you could easily drive a truck through—or a drone.

Obviously, the best rejoinder to my argument is that there are people out there who wish to do us serious harm, even possibly using nuclear weapons, and therefore our interests are particularly acute and thus our margin for error should be bigger. I agree that such people exist. I am not so optimistic, however, that drone strikes are being confined to even those broader individuals within the margin of error. Yet, even if they were, I would still have a problem with the discretionary and unreviewable decisions being made.

Drones pose a particularly acute problem from a public-choice standpoint. Currently, the president and other high-level officials suffer almost no costs for drone attack mistakes. Conversely, the costs to them, politically, personally, and in their legacies, of allowing a terrorist attack on U.S. soil are quite high. Many people will blame President Obama for any attack that occurs over the next four years. Intelligence reports after a future attack will inevitably point out when the U.S. could have acted but chose not to. Perhaps a drone had the eventual terrorist in its sights but the kill order was not given, maybe because innocents were in the area. Therefore, we can reasonably expect high-level officials to err on the side of overkill, and perhaps this is a defensible policy.

But we should not and cannot ignore the costs incurred by the civilian living under constant fear of drone attacks. A recent report, Living Under Drones, from Stanford and NYU law schools estimates that between 474 and 881 civilians have died in U.S. drone attacks, including 176 children. Moreover, the constant presence of drones over northwest Pakistan has caused “considerable and under-accounted-for harm to the daily lives of ordinary civilians,” including the undermining of “cultural and religious practices related to burial, and made family members afraid to attend funerals” out of fear that drones will attack large gatherings of people.

These costs to innocent civilians must always be considered. Yet, the memo disturbingly omits a crucial element of the Supreme Court’s due process test that would give these costs more weight. In Mathews v. Eldridge, the Court articulated the test for how much process is due a citizen who the government seeks to deprive of some vested right. That case dealt with depriving Mr. Eldridge of his social security benefits, but the test used by the Court is generally applied to all possible “deprivations,” including life. The test is three-pronged: 1) the nature of the private interest; 2) the risk of error in the procedures used and “probable value, if any, of additional or substitute procedural safeguards”; 3) the nature of the government interest. Astoundingly, even while citing Mathews, the memo omits the second factor entirely. As Lawfare’s Steve Vladeck writes:

There’s no discussion–none–of the risk of false positives under the existing procedures, or the potential cost of additional process. This turns the Mathews test on its head, for it suggests that the relevant question in any case is simply whether the balancing of the interests supports the already provided level of process–and not whether the error rate and/or cost of more process is at all relevant to that determination. Not only has the Supreme Court never so understood the Mathews test, but such an approach would convert an already controversial metric for “measuring” due process into a completely standardless one–and completely obfuscate the underlying principle that the government has an obligation to provide as much process as can reasonably be expected under the circumstances.

Ultimately, this is the omitted factor that Americans should care about. There are certainly heightened interests when it comes to protecting Americans from violent attacks, and the government can act swiftly to counter a truly imminent threat, but it must take into account the risk of error and whether more procedures could help minimize those errors. And we must be clear: sometimes these “errors” are dead children.

May 25, 2012 11:51AM

U.S.-Pakistan Relations: The Afridi Affair and Its Aftermath

Yet again, U.S.-Pakistan relations have hit a new low. Days after a deal to reopen NATO supply routes into Afghanistan fell through, and two back-to-back U.S. drone strikes rocked northwest Pakistan in a 24-hour period, tensions flared again after a tribal court sentenced Dr. Shakil Afridi---a Pakistani citizen who helped the United States track-down Osama bin Laden with a fake vaccination program---to 33 years in prison.

Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill were appalled, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the move "unjust and unwarranted." Apparently, U.S. officials and lawmakers are surprised that the chasm separating Washington and Islamabad is growing wider after years of papering over their differences.

Yesterday, in response to Dr. Afridi’s 33-year sentence under the Frontier Crimes Regulation, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to cut aid to Pakistan by a symbolic $33 million. That's not enough---it represents just 58% of the amount the president requested for Pakistan. Washington should go further and phase out assistance entirely.

Today in the New Jersey Star-Ledger, my coauthor Aimen Khan and I argue that ending aid to Pakistan is the right course for both countries:

The U.S. must carefully calibrate a policy with Pakistan that continues diplomatic relations absent large sums of aid. While cutting aid to Pakistan might be temporarily destabilizing, Pakistan’s support for militant Islamists is arguably more harmful to regional stability. Moreover, while emergency-type humanitarian aid can be beneficial to the Pakistani people, economic development aid intended to promote growth has been detrimental, allowing Islamabad to avoid confronting its rampant corruption and budgetary problems with the necessary urgency.

The Pakistani government and people stand united in their belief that Pakistan does not need the U.S. Phasing out U.S. aid to Pakistan benefits both parties and better reflects strategic realities.

As is common with U.S. military and foreign aid to unstable governments, it typically serves to entrench the prerogatives of military and civilian elites. Quite perversely, in return for the tens of billions of dollars that American taxpayers forked over to Islamabad, many in Pakistan have come to blame Washington for their deteriorating situation. Even well-intentioned assistance under the much-lauded Kerry-Lugar aid package was viewed within Pakistan as an infringement on sovereignty, mainly because it came with intrusive strings attached. Furthermore, U.S. aid and arm-twisting have failed to pressure or persuade Pakistan to go after militants we deem to be a threat to our interests, including the Afghan/Quetta Shura/Karachi Taliban, Hekmatyar, and the Haqqanis.

From the 30,000-foot view, from Islamabad to New Delhi, it appears that Washington is slowly making a long-term pivot in South Asia. But as this author argued years ago, reconciling this pivot in the context of Afghanistan has been nothing short of a failure. The United States and Pakistan do not trust one another, NATO slouches toward an exit, and Pakistan has become more radicalized, destabilized, and encircled by India and militants.

But I digress. Please click here to read the full op-ed. Enjoy!

 

April 18, 2012 11:54AM

It’s Groundhog Day in Afghanistan

Media Name: CNN.bmp



The war in Afghanistan tragically feels like the movie Groundhog Day: reliving and retelling the same stories repeatedly, but with the situation worse than it was the previous time. The United States is perpetually stuck in a repetitive series of setbacks and scandals that damage the mission. It cannot escape the shadow that ruinous events cast over the prospect of defeating the Taliban.

Today, the Los Angeles Times published photos of U.S. soldiers posing with the mangled corpses of alleged insurgents. This latest grisly and embarrassing episode, much like the incidental burning of Qurans, the murder of 17 Afghan civilians by a U.S. Army Sgt., and the U.S. kill team that collected the fingers and teeth of Afghan corpses as trophies, is yet another scandal that damages what America stands for. Certainly, war breeds hatred for one’s enemies. But perhaps even more troubling is that over a decade of fighting has—as military expert Carl Prine and others have observed—led to a serious breakdown in military discipline, leadership, and chain of command.

These photos also come after a series of coordinated assaults rocked Kabul and three provincial capitals this past weekend. The Taliban’s annual spring offensive has commenced. These attacks do not bode well for America’s plan to transition to Afghan forces, or for the 2001 Bonn Agreement proclamations of bringing about “national reconciliation” and “lasting peace.” Of the many interpretations that one can glean about the significance of these recent the attacks in the heart of the capital city, three stand out.

First, they show that despite coalition night raids and drones strikes that have managed to eliminate the Taliban’s numerous shadow governors, mid-level commanders, and weapons facilitators the insurgents still have the upper hand in terms of local knowledge and connections with the Afghan people—including high-level officials. As a classified NATO report from January stated, the Taliban’s “strength, motivation, funding and tactical proficiency remains intact,” and, “Many Afghans are already bracing themselves for an eventual return of the Taliban.”

Second, these attacks send the unequivocal message to the Afghan people that their government is vulnerable and thus unable to protect them. While some commentators have pointed to the performance of the Afghan security forces, the attacks, if anything, underscore the fragility of a Kabul-centric government reliant on an endless stream of foreign-aid dollars. After all, in addition to these attacks, there was the coordinated assault on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters last September, and the growing number of top Afghan leaders who have been assassinated one-by-one. These include Jan Mohhammed Khan, the former governor of Uruzgan province; Ahmed Wali Karzai, President Hamid Karzai’s half-brother; General Daud Daud, the governor of Takhar province; Khan Mohammed Mujahed, the police chief of Kandahar; and others I neglected to mention.

Third, as one astute observer has noted, the mainstream media has reported on the attacks in Kabul, Pol-e-Alam (Logar), Gardez (Paktia), and Jalalabad (Nangarhar), but overlooked the attempted attack in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan. This would have undercut the conventional narrative that the anti-Afghan government insurgency remains where the Obama administration’s “surge” was most focused: in the south. But rather than remaining in one pocket of the country, the complex blend of factions that include the Hezb-i-Islami militia, the Haqqani network, and other loosely affiliated groups that have spread to the north as well. Paradoxically, much of the international community’s development aid and military resources have gone to some of Afghanistan’s most insecure provinces. As Oxfam International’s former head of policy in Afghanistan Matt Waldman writes, if Helmand province were a state, it would be “the world’s fifth largest recipient of funds” from USAID.

As usual, political leaders and military commanders have downplayed these latest attacks as yet another “one-off” incident. Americans know better. To them, these attacks—and the photos—will serve as yet another stunning reminder of how poorly things are going, and why we need to leave.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

October 4, 2011 5:24PM

Four Thoughts on the Anwar Al‐​Awlaki Assassination

As Bob Levy has already ably probed the legal issues surrounding the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, I'll just append a few miscellaneous thoughts.

First, over the last decade we have been repeatedly told by foreign policy hawks that it is foolish, and even borderline offensive, to suggest that aggressive U.S. action abroad may have the counterproductive and unintended consequence of swelling the ranks of terror groups. When evaluating the wisdom of drone strikes or invasions of other countries, we need not even factor in the downside risk of "blowback" stemming from such actions, because "they hate us for our freedoms." In other words, radical Islamist terrorists are fundamentally motivated by a vision of a global caliphate, not by any grievances stemming from real or perceived injuries inflicted by U.S. policy. I think of this as the "No Marginal Terrorist" Theory, because it posits that people are motivated to join terror groups strictly for reasons connected with either personal psychology or theology, such that reactions to specific U.S. actions never make the difference at the margin.

At the same time—and often by the same people—we are told that Anwar al-Awlaki posed a grave threat to the United States, not so much because of any particular logistical genius he possessed, but because he was so dangerously effective as a recruiter and propagandist who could inspire people already living in the West to jihad. Surely, then, it's relevant to inquire into the nature of this lethally effective propaganda. Here is an excerpt from what The Guardian calls one of "his most direct, English-language statements endorsing terror attacks on Americans":

With the American invasion of Iraq and continued U.S. aggression against Muslims, I could not reconcile between living in the U.S. and being a Muslim, and I eventually came to the conclusion that jihad against America is binding upon myself just as it is binding on every other Muslim....

To the Muslims in America, I have this to say: How can your conscience allow you to live in peaceful coexistence with a nation that is responsible for the tyranny and crimes committed against your own brothers and sisters?

Possibly al-Awlaki is just a sort of Salafist James Earl Jones, and the sheer hypnotic beauty of his voice is what compels people to sacrifice their lives for him, without regard to the specific contents of his sermons. Still, it seems to be a problem for the No Marginal Terrorist Theory if a propagandist who was believed to be uniquely effective at motivating people to become terrorists used rhetoric like this to do it.

Second, a good deal of the coverage I've been seeing has treated the conclusions of U.S. intelligence analysts about al-Awlaki's role and status within al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as ironclad facts rather than contestable inferences from necessarily patchy data—even though the past decade should have made it abundantly clear that analysts sometimes get it wrong. Certainly al-Awlaki is no "innocent" in any sense of the word, but on the crucial claim that he'd progressed from terrorist mascot to mastermind, it's worth noticing how much of the case depends on plots that the cleric was "linked to" or "believed to have had a hand in planning." At least one Yemen expert has argued that al-Awlaki's status within AQAP has been wildly inflated, describing him as a "midlevel religious functionary."

While there is some public evidence that certainly seems to support the conclusion that al-Awlaki had gone "operational"—that he did not merely advocate jihad in principle, but played a key role in planning and directing terrorist acts—the bulk of it remains classified. As we learned to our great cost after the invasion of Iraq, a top secret clearance does not actually grant omniscience, and sometimes a case that seems like a slam-dunk on the surface falls apart under impartial scrutiny. Paradoxically, the administration's refusal to submit to that scrutiny seems to have given its determinations an aura of oracular certainty.

Third, the case for targeted killing here relies very heavily on the fact that al-Awlaki had put himself beyond the reach of feasible arrest. The most ardent hawk would recoil at the prospect of simply dropping a bomb on a citizen suspected of al Qaeda ties in New Jersey, or London. But as Robert Farley notes, what is "feasible" is at least in part a matter of judgments about the risks and benefits of attempting a capture. So we're required to entrust to the executive branch to determine not just when a particular citizen has joined the enemy, but under what conditions it's worth the risk of attempting to take them alive.

In al-Awlaki's case, one can at least say—as the judge who rejected a lawsuit brought by his father did—that the target was plainly aware the government was after him, and in theory could have offered to surrender himself if he'd been interested in seeking his day in court. (I stress "in theory" because it's hard to imagine AQAP looking favorably on such a decision in the wildly improbable event al-Awlaki had been inclined to make it.)

But remember that this was supposed to be a wholly covert operation, and would (according to the administration) imperil national security if discussed in any way—even though the national security risk appears to have diminished a great deal now that it's a matter of taking credit rather than blocking litigation. There was an advance leak in this instance, but the next citizen on the list may have no idea there's a Hellfire missile with his name on it. What we think about the specific instance of al-Awlaki, then, seems less important than how we feel about a case in which everything goes according to plan. That is, an American citizen is simply killed abroad with no advance warning, on the basis of an executive determination that he has joined an enemy power and poses an imminent threat, and no guarantee that the United States will acknowledge (let alone justify) the operation even after the fact.

Fourth and finally, the debate after the fact has been a reminder of how utterly useless conventional war metaphors are for grappling with the unique problems presented by the present conflict. Anyone who imagines the very thorny issues presented in the current case are somehow illuminated by analogies from World War II is just kidding themselves: if this conflict were not so plainly unlike World War II and other conventional conflicts between nation states, on so many salient dimensions—if we could straightforwardly treat an ever-shifting array of emerging terror groups as equivalent to a sovereign country's uniformed military—everything would be a good deal simpler.

July 7, 2011 10:53AM

Al Qaeda’s Mythical Unity

The mythical al Qaeda is a hierarchical organization. After losing its haven in Afghanistan, it cleverly decentralized authority and shifted its headquarters to Pakistan. But central management still dispatches operatives globally and manages affiliates according to a strategy.

The real al Qaeda is a fragmented and unmanageable movement. In the 1990s, it achieved limited success in getting other jihadists to join in attacking the West. It was not managerial innovation but the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and other governments’ pressures that destroyed  the limited hierarchy al Qaeda Central had achieved. Its scattered remnant in Pakistan controls little locally and less abroad. The leaders have cachet but lack the material incentives that real managers distribute to exercise authority. Al Qaeda became bunches of guys with diminished capability.*

The myth is destructive to counterterrorism. Because tightly-run organizations are better at mass violence than disparate movements, the myth creates needless fear that encourages overly ambitious and expensive policies, like the war in Afghanistan. The myth increases the number of enemies we face, taking focus from real ones. Most jihadist militants hate Americans but don’t try to kill us. They fight locally. Attacking them risks making them into what we fear they are and stoking nationalistic resentment that increases their popularity.

My anecdotal sense is that events since 9/11 have increasingly brought commentators around to truth. Even so, the media, for simplicity’s sake, tends towards the myth. And the Obama administration, despite improving upon its predecessors’ absurdly broad definition of our terrorist enemies, still overstates al Qaeda Central’s unity and control of affiliates. More importantly, U.S. policies still pay insufficient attention to the distinction among various al Qaeda entities.

Here are three recent examples of this rhetorical error and its consequences:

(1) Since bin Laden’s death, U.S. officials, analysts, and pundits have claimed that the cache of emails found in his compound contradict recent intelligence reports downplaying his control. The emails, we are told, show that he was still running the show and that al Qaeda Central remained potent.

Last week, however, McClatchy quoted more anonymous officials suggesting that to al Qaeda types in Pakistan and beyond, bin Laden was like a “cranky old uncle” that you respectfully listen to and ignore. The Washington Post reported that the emails show al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan complaining about depleted funds, declining popularity, and CIA drones decimating their ranks.

The White House seems conflicted about which view of al Qaeda to take. It commendably wants to belittle al Qaeda, robbing it of mystique by portraying bin Laden as pathetic and weak. On the other hand, it needs the threat of a powerful al Qaeda to justify the war in Afghanistan and other controversial policies.

(2) Media reports often give the impression that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are the core of the militant group (Ansar al-Sharia) revolting in Yemen’s south. The implication is al Qaeda could soon control territory for the first time. Too little attention is given to the uncertain role AQAP plays among Yemen’s militants and its limited ties to al Qaeda Central. Bin Laden apparently asked AQAP’s leader to attack Americans rather than gathering territory locally, suggesting that its commitment to attacking us may be limited.

The point is not that we should ignore al Qaeda terrorists in Yemen. But uncertainty about their role in Yemen and intent cautions against undifferentiated assaults on their leaders, let alone those of Ansar al-Sharia.

(3) 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.

*These positions are roughly those taken by Bruce Hoffman and Marc Sageman, respectively. My aim is not to perfectly state their views, however, but to describe general views in terrorism commentary.

Cross-posted from The National Interest.