The Twisted Logic of Drone Warfare


A recent article in the Washington Post entitled “Plan for hunting terrorists signals U.S. intends to keep adding names to kill lists” by Mr. Greg Miller explains, in detail, the finer points of the White House’s policy of targeted killings and drone attacks.

The article explains how the Obama administration has been “secretly developing a new blueprint for pursuing terrorists” called the “disposition matrix.” The matrix is an organized array that lists suspected terrorists and the corresponding resources that are being used to apprehend them (or “neutralize” them). It is a key component of the war on terror, a war that the US government plans on carrying out for some years to come.

The article reveals the “institutionalization” of what was once considered to be an extreme, and therefore judiciously used, tool in the war on terror. Now, however, a mechanism is being put in place that will allow for the regular, and sustained, use of armed attack drones. Mr. John O. Brennan, counter terrorism advisor to the White House, is working on a process that will “codify the administration’s approach to generating capture/kill lists”. Once in place, it is believed that this infrastructure will be used by future administrations.

Less well explained in the article is the White House’s legal justification for killing people around the world through a process that has, at best, limited oversight and transparency. The Obama administration argues that targeted drone attacks have a legal basis, some of which comes from the congressional authorization to use force that was granted after the attacks of September 11, 2001, some of which comes from the inherent right of a nation to defend itself. But as the number, as well as the geographical scope, of drone attacks increases, so does criticism about of their use, on both moral and legal grounds.

The main argument for using attack drones is that they are hurting the “enemy” and draining him of his strength and will to fight. But this then begs a simple question. Is that true?

The Pentagon has about 7,000 drones at its disposal, not all of them being for attack purposes. One region that has seen their greatest use is the Afghanistan / Pakistan theatre, or “AfPak” as the area is commonly called. For several years now a sustained targeted drone campaign has been carried in an effort to weaken the “insurgents” (who are, for the most part, local Afghan fighters). It has been estimated that over the past decade somewhere between 1,800 to 3,100 people have been killed in the region by US drone strikes. And while the US government would argue that the vast majority of the people killed were combatants, some estimates show that for every “insurgent” killed, 10 civilians were also killed.

So are drones effective at reducing the will of the “enemy” to fight? Recent figures out of Afghanistan are discouraging. The number of attacks reportedly carried out by “insurgents” in the period from April to June 2012 was actually 11% higher than during the same period of 2011. This resulted in almost 110 attacks a day during the month of June 2012, the highest number of attacks for that month since the war began. These statistics do not appear to be in line with an effective counterterrorism policy that is sapping the will of the enemy to fight. On the contrary, one could argue that drone strikes are only encouraging more violence on the part of the “insurgents.”

The war in Afghanistan is now the longest war in America’s history. Perhaps some light could be shed on current events by looking back at America’s second longest war, the war in Vietnam. Here too, conventional wisdom held that if you just “bombed them” hard enough and long enough, you would weaken the enemy’s resistance and will to fight. This would then render him more amenable to seeing and understanding your position (the implication being, of course, that he would also agree with it) and seek a cessation to hostilities.

It was this thought process in the upper echelons of US power during the 1960s that led to the bombing campaign known as “Operation Rolling Thunder.” It was originally planned to last just twelve weeks and was designed to bring the enemy to his “senses.” It ended up lasting three years and nine months (March 1965 till November 1968), the longest strategic bombing campaign in US history.

And the effect on the enemy’s will to fight? Limited, at best. In a study funded by the Defense Department, and carried out by the Rand Corporation, it was found that the bombing campaign did not have the intended effect on enemy morale. On the contrary, the study reported that “…enemy troops, despite increasing hardships and frustrations with no rewarding victories to show in return, have failed to reveal any signs of cracking.” It went on to say that “neither our military actions nor our political or psywar efforts seem to have made an appreciable dent in the enemy’s overall motivation and morale structure.” The report’s conclusion was that years of US bombing had not appreciably reduced fighting morale in the enemy. In fact, in all likelihood, it probably caused it to go up.

After 11 years of fighting, the US has now been in Afghanistan longer than the Soviet Union. 2,000 soldiers have died in combat, with over 17,000 wounded. The cost of the war is well over $1 trillion, and still counting. With a recent spate of “green on blue” attacks in which Afghan army forces have attacked NATO coalition forces, one would be hard pressed to make a case that current counterterrorism policies are weakening the fighting capabilities of the “insurgents” and local Afghan fighters.

The war in Vietnam also holds a second lesson. Between December 18 and 29, 1972, the US carried out an intense bombing campaign over North Vietnam. It was called “Linebacker II” (the logical successor to Linebacker “I”) and is more popularly known as “The Christmas Bombings. Whereas Linebacker I was aimed at smashing North Vietnam’s war making capabilities, Linebacker II was focused more on destroying North Vietnam’s infrastructure and bringing terror to her civilian population in general, a precursor to the “shock and awe” campaign of America’s second war in Iraq. The Linebacker II campaign has been credited with changing the North Vietnamese mindset and “bringing Hanoi back to the bargaining table.” On January 27, 1973, the Paris Peace Accords were signed. Within 8 weeks, 591 American POWs were released from captivity.

So is the US ready to escalate hostilities and engage in a massive bombing campaign to terrorize the civilian populations of Afghanistan and Pakistan in order to change the mindset of the “enemy” and allow for a dignified withdrawal of US troops? This would be hard to justify in light of NATO’s stated mission to “… facilitate improvements in governance and socio-economic development in order to provide a secure environment for sustainable stability that is observable to the population”.

A moment eventually arrived when the United States decided that the cost of continuing the war in Vietnam was greater than the benefit, and brought that war to an end. While combat operations are scheduled to cease by the end of 2014, NATO is committed to maintaining a presence in Afghanistan well after that. One could be forgiven for asking, “At what cost”?

Tom McNamara is a professor at the Rennes School of Business.

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