On January 14th, the White House announced that Gen. Joseph Votel - the current head of U.S. Special Operations Command – will take over as the head of U.S. Central Command, a position which will place him in charge of America’s wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. The symbolism of the appointment could not be clearer. As Foreign Policy noted,
“With 3,000 special operations troops currently hunting down Taliban militants in Afghanistan, and another 200 having just arrived on the ground in Iraq to take part in kill or capture missions against Islamic State leadership, Votel’s nomination underscores the central role that the elite troops play in the wars that President Barack Obama is preparing to hand off to the next administration.”
The growing use of special operations forces has been a hallmark of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, an attempt to thread the needle between growing public opposition to large-scale troop deployments and public demands for the United States to ‘do more’ against terrorist threats, all while dancing around the definition of the phrase ‘boots on the ground.’ But the increasing use of such non-traditional forces – particularly since the start of the Global War on Terror – is also reshaping how we think about U.S. military intervention overseas.Read the rest of this post »
My article in this week’s Washington Examiner magazine argues that because U.S. wars seem so cheap, they tempt us into making war too casually. I explain that while this tendency isn’t new, recent technology breakthroughs, which allowed the development of drones, have made it worse. We now make war almost like people buy movies or songs online, where low prices and convenience encourage purchase without much debate or consideration of value. I label the phenomenon one-click wars.
If we take occasional drone strikes as a minimum standard, the United States is at war in six countries: Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, with Libya likely to rejoin the list. In the first three, U.S. military action is exclusively the work of drones. Regular U.S. ground forces are present only in Iraq, where they avoid direct combat, and Afghanistan, where they mostly do.
There’s something remarkable in that combination of militarism and restraint. How can we be so willing to make war but so reluctant to take risks in making it?
My explanation starts with power. Wealth, technological prowess, and military might give the United States unique ability to make war around the world. But labor scarcity, liberal values, and our isolated geography that makes the stakes remote limit our tolerance for sacrificing lives, even foreign ones, in war. This reluctance to bear the human costs of war leads to reliance on long-range technology, especially airpower.
Airpower, despite its historical tendency to fail without help from ground forces, always offers hope that we are only a few bombs away from enemy capitulation. The promise of cheap, clean wars is always alluring. They would let you escape the choice between the bloody sacrifices war entails and the liberal values it offends.
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.
Yesterday, the L.A. Times revealed that the United States is equipping and training thousands of African soldiers to fight al-Shabab, the militant wing of the Islamist Somali government. For now, outsourcing the combat to African countries may appear to bring America minimal risk, but Washington’s renewal of its multi-decade attachment to Somalia continues a cycle of deciding its winners and losers. Among an assortment of tribes, clans, and African states fighting for self-serving ends, Washington has handcuffed itself to a hornet’s nest.
The hubris of policymakers who believe they can remedy Somalia’s problems could produce policies that draw more recruits to the cause of militant groups, much as similar policies have in the past. Policymakers have failed repeatedly to bring order to the destitute African state, such as when it descended into clan-based warfare in the early 1990s.
At the time, U.S. officials agreed to enforce a March 1993 U.N. resolution that pledged to rehabilitate Somalia’s economy and reestablish national and regional institutions. State Department official David Shinn spoke of “basically re-creating a country,” while then-U.N. ambassador Madeleine Albright said America’s mission in Somalia “aimed at nothing less than the restoration of an entire country as a proud, functioning and viable member of the community of nations.” The humanitarian mission eventually tasked America’s military with disarming Somali warlords and conducting house-to-house weapons searches. What began as U.S. leaders imbued with the best of intentions eventually ended with our brave military’s ignominious defeat.
Today, the United States fights al-Shabab by proxy. The group poses no direct threat to the security of the United States; however, exaggerated claims about the specter of al Qaeda could produce policy decisions that exacerbate a localized, regional problem into a global one. Amid news that African troops are doing the fighting, but that “The United States is doing almost everything else,” African Union forces could be seen as a puppet proxy of Uncle Sam.
Washington is supplementing the training of African troops with private contractors. Outsourcing makes intervention easier, as policymakers can hide the costs of a mission they have yet to clearly define. Intervention on the cheap also becomes costly in other ways. For a commander in chief who allegedly believes he should take moral responsibility for America’s lethal counterterrorism operations, privatizing intervention allows him and his administration to escape accountability should the forces we train, or the weapons we provide, turn against us or our allies.
Like moths to a flame, disparate Somali groups may rally around the perception they are fighting against the injustice of foreign meddling. Moreover, while military analysts were boasting back in June that al-Shabab could be facing the end of its once-powerful rule, questions surrounding what form of political stability will fill the al-Shabab vacuum remain unasked and unanswered.
The United States began fighting al-Shabab after December 2006, when Washington backed Ethiopia in toppling Somalia’s loose network of Islamist Sharia courts. The intervention backfired. The Islamist movement grew more powerful and today, U.S. officials fear al Qaeda could gain a foothold unless al-Shabab is defeated.
Sadly, America's history of intervention in Somalia aptly demonstrates the resiliency of unintended consequences. Although developments in Somalia have some observers arguing that America should become more involved, the more reasonable conclusion to draw—looking at the historical record—is that America has tried and failed repeatedly to transform Somalia at an acceptable cost.
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 Afghanistan, al 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.
The same week U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta declared “we’re within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda”—an assessment that many believe reflects the efforts of seven years of CIA drone strikes—former director of national intelligence Dennis Blair called America’s “unilateral” drone war in countries like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia a mistake. “Because we’re alienating the countries concerned,” Blair said, “because we’re treating countries just as places where we go attack groups that threaten us, we are threatening the prospects of long-term reform.”
Given that our Nobel Peace Prize–winning president has drastically escalated the use of these flying, robotic hitmen, there seems to be some confusion at the White House.
Speaking to attendees at the Aspen Security Forum, Blair said drone strikes in Pakistan should be launched only when America had the full cooperation of the government in Islamabad and “we agree with them on what drone attacks” should target. As explained elsewhere, this author accepts the efficacy of America’s drone war, but with enormous reluctance. That said, part of Blair’s assessment seems wildly out of touch. Why would Washington wait for permission from Islamabad to hunt al Qaeda?
First, individuals either within or with ties to Pakistan’s spy agency have collaborated with insurgents that frequently attack U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan. That doesn’t speak well for Blair’s call for joint cooperation. Second, we’ve known for years that elements within Pakistan have thwarted — on several occasions — foreign-led attempts to find and take out terrorists. Even someone who is not wildly enamored with drones understands the argument for employing them unilaterally when confronted with uncooperative governments. Policymakers, however, should be weighing the ability to keep militant groups off balance against the costs of facilitating the rise of more terrorists, particularly in a country as volatile as Pakistan.
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.