Drones and the human cost of war

The debate about drones continues on the pages of Cato Unbound. You can check out the site and become part of the conversation here.

In my most recent posting I counter Daniel Goure’s assertion that drones do not increase the temptation to intervene militarily. I and many others have argued to the contrary, that drones are troubling precisely because they lower the domestic costs of using military force.

We know that concerns about casualties play a role in decisions about military intervention. This is as it should be in a democratic society where leaders are supposed to be accountable to public concerns. Some military operations have been called off because of military casualties, for example after the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut and the ‘Black Hawk down’ disaster a decade later in Somalia. Because of the political sensitivity of military casualties government officials sometimes try to hide the human costs of war.  Drones change these dynamics. The ability to launch military strikes without the risk of American casualties removes one of the principal political burdens associated with the decision to use force.

Consider the military interventions in Pakistan and Somalia. Without the use of drone strikes, the only option for precise military strikes in Pakistan or Somalia would be ground operations. These would be much bloodier than drone strikes and far more dangerous. They would carry a high risk of failure.  If drones did not exist, and invasions were the only option, would the United States really launch major ground operations in Pakistan or Somalia? Highly unlikely. Without drones there would be no campaigns of military strikes against Pakistan and Somalia. And that’s the point. These weapons allow the use of military force in settings where otherwise it would not be an option.

License to Kill

Do drone weapons make war more likely?  Evidence suggests that countries may indeed be more inclined to use military force when they have highly accurate weapons that can be used without risking the lives of their service members. Drone warfare has become a centerpiece of U.S. counterterrorism policy. Secretary of Defense Panetta has called drone warfare “the only game in town” for suppressing Al Qaida.

The use of these weapons perpetuates the illusion that terrorism can be defeated by military means. It detracts attention from the political solutions and law enforcement measures that have proven to be more effective for that purpose.

I address these and other critical issues surrounding drone warfare in the current issue of Cato Unbound. Read more here


Just Back from Kabul

Last week I traveled to Afghanistan as part of a delegation from the Dutch development agency Cordaid. I was there to update the findings of our report last year, Afghan Women Speak, and learn how the security transition and initial stages of Western troop withdrawal are affecting the prospects for peace and human rights.

Entering an active war zone quickens the pulse, but during our brief trip all was calm in Kabul. No attacks occurred in the city, although the steady pace of military operations continued in the provinces, as did reported drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Afghan national police and army troops are visible at many major intersections in Kabul. Amidst the city’s dense traffic we saw a number of ‘technicals,’ Toyota pickups with 4 to 6 armed and uniformed Afghan men sitting in the back, holding automatic weapons and in some instances RPGs.

Only once did we feel vulnerable, while waiting outside the security entrance to a government ministry near the presidential palace, blast walls and guard towers outside all the buildings, our group of six civilians standing exposed on the side of a busy boulevard, warily watching the passing vehicles.

During interviews with more than a dozen Afghan women leaders, researchers, international aid workers and former Afghan government officials, we learned of persistent dangers and threats to the country’s future.

  • Afghan women face continuing repression.  They are witnessing the erosion of previous gains as Taliban control spreads in the countryside and reactionary warlord influence increases within the Kabul regime. The government’s own security forces are often responsible for violations of women’s rights.  Check back in a few days for a more detailed account of what we learned.
  • The withdrawal of foreign forces will produce an economic crisis for the government of Afghanistan, which remains almost completely dependent financially on the U.S. and other foreign governments, especially to pay for its huge 300,000-person security forces.  I wrote about this funding failure in an earlier post.
  • A new security agreement between Kabul and Washington is likely to call for the continued presence of U.S. military forces in the country beyond the 2014 transition deadline. This is seen as necessary to provide security for Kabul, but it could also have the effect of prolonging the insurgency and impeding prospects for reconciliation.

It was clear from what we heard that maintaining security requires more than deploying a large number of troops. It also requires proper governance, functioning courts, the rule of law, and an end to the impunity and abuse perpetrated by Afghan government officials and security forces. If the Afghan people cannot trust their government, no amount of military force will be able to assure genuine security and stability.

Debating Drones: Convenient Killing?

Last week I was on The News Hour debating the question of drone weapons.

Drone technology is spreading rapidly. As many as 50 countries are developing or purchasing these systems, including China, Russia, India, Pakistan, and Iran. Even non-state actors are involved. Hezbollah reportedly has deployed an Iranian-designed drone. Iran is developing a new drone warcraft with a range of more than 600 miles. These systems are used mostly for surveillance, but it is not difficult to equip the aircraft with missiles and bombs.

Recently in Massachusetts, a man was arrested for plotting to place explosives on a drone aircraft and fly it into the Pentagon or the Capitol building. Private contractors are getting into the business as well. We now have companies offering drones-for-hire.

What kind of a future are we creating for our children? We face the prospect of a world in which every nation will have drone warfare capability, in which terror can rain down from the sky at any moment without warning.

Read the rest of my editorial on cnn.com.

Watch my interview on PBS Newshour:

Reflections on the 10th anniversary

I’ve been invited to The Hague this week by the International Center on Counter-Terrorism for the presentation “Reflecting on the Effects of Counter-Terrorism Measures since 9/11: A Civil Society Perspective.” My talk focuses on the erosion of political freedom and human rights in many parts of the world resulting from repressive counter-terrorism measures.

It feels strange to be here in Europe during such a traumatic week in the U.S. The constant commemorations are reminding us of that terrifying time, what we were doing when the planes hit, how we responded to the horror of so many lives lost.

In that time of foreboding ten years ago, many of us felt a double fear—from the menacing threat of al Qaida’s murderous attacks, but also from the risk of an overly militarized reaction from the U.S. government. Our fears were sharpened soon after the attacks when President Bush declared a ‘global war on terror.’

During that time of fear I worked with friends in the religious community, Reverends Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Bob Edgar of the National Council of Churches, to help craft a statement appealing for “sober restraint” and warning against indiscriminate retaliation that would cause more loss of innocent life. The proper response to the criminal attacks of al Qaida, the statement argued, is not war, but vigorous international police efforts to apprehend perpetrators and prevent future attacks. “Let us deny them their victory by refusing to submit to a world created in their image,” the declaration read. It was eventually signed by more than 4,000 people and published in The New York Times on November 19, 2001.

Ten years later that message remains relevant and necessary. The ill-fated military occupation of Iraq is finally coming to an end, but American troops continue to fight and die in Afghanistan, and U.S. forces are launching a dozen or more drone bombing strikes and commando raids every day in Pakistan, Afghanistan and other countries.  Civilian deaths in Afghanistan are at their highest level since the UN began reporting such figures, and many are dying under our bombs in Pakistan as well. More innocent lives are lost, and more seeds of revenge and future armed conflict are sown.

When will we learn that war is not the answer? That policies of civilian law enforcement and conflict transformation offer a better strategy for preventing violent extremism?

Bin Laden’s gone; now let’s end the war

The killing of Osama bin Laden brings partial closure to the long war against Al Qaeda. It is a credit to the police, intelligence and military Special Forces professionals who carried out the job, and to President Obama for maintaining persistent focus on eliminating the threat from Al Qaeda.

This is an occasion for many Americans to celebrate but it is also a time for reflection about the war in Afghanistan, and the necessity of bringing it to a close.

Last year CIA Director Leon Panetta acknowledged what many analysts already know, that Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan has dwindled to insignificance. In June 2010 Panetta told ABC News that the total number of al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan is “relatively small. At most, we’re looking at 50 to 100, maybe less.”

In the wake of Panetta’s revelation some asked why it is necessary to maintain 100,000 U.S. troops, with tens of thousands of additional soldiers from other countries, to wage war against fewer than 100 fighters. In fact this is not a war against Al Qaeda but against the Taliban. Continuing the war is not necessary or helpful to the essential task of preventing global terrorist attacks. Continue reading “Bin Laden’s gone; now let’s end the war”

Democracy: The antidote to terrorism

The democratic revolution in Egypt poses a challenge to Al Qaeda. The movement’s #2 leader, Ayman Al Zawahiri, was tortured in Mubarak’s jails in the 1980s. He emerged a hardened murderer, convinced that terror is the only way to topple corrupt Arab regimes and hurt the “far enemy” in America that supports such governments.

This narrative has been undermined by the success of nonviolent resistance in Egypt and Tunisia (will Bahrain or Yemen be next?). The democratic movements show that authoritarian regimes can be transformed through peaceful means (almost all the violence in these struggles has been perpetrated by the pro-government side).

Continue reading “Democracy: The antidote to terrorism”

When War Trumps Reason

Reading Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars is giving me a headache.  The problem is not Woodward’s writing and reporting, which are first class as usual, but rather the story of Obama’s fall 2009 strategy review itself. His account shows a president who is deeply skeptical of military solutions. “I want an exit strategy,” the president insisted to his advisers. “Everything that we’re doing has to be focused on how … we can reduce our military footprint.” Also expressing skepticism about the war were Vice President Joe Biden; Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke; the White House ‘war czar’ and senior adviser for Afghanistan, General Douglas Lute; and U.S. ambassador and former commanding general in Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry.

Yet Obama decided to send 30,000 additional troops. Having relied primarily on military advice, the president received only military options. The thrust of the discussion was not whether to send troops but how many and how fast. A sad reflection on the power of the Pentagon to shape presidential decision making and the way in which war imperatives can trump rational decision making.

I’m completing a new book, Ending Obama’s War, which outlines a plan for responsible military disengagement. Look for it early next year from Paradigm Publishers.

Obama’s War

A grim milestone was reached last month. US casualties in Afghanistan during the Obama administration have now surpassed those of the Bush era. During the eight years of the Bush administration, total US fatalities in Afghanistan numbered 578. As of September 22 fatalities during the Obama administration were reported at 646.

Afghanistan is now truly Obama’s War. I write this with regret and sadness, not anger. I admire Obama greatly and support much of his progressive agenda. On this issue, though, I believe the president has been ill advised and placed too much faith in military solutions.

Continue reading “Obama’s War”

How (not) to counter terrorism

In my inbox this week are three important reminders of the costs and consequences of our country’s overly militarized responses to 9/11.

In his Informed Comment blog Juan Cole offers the “speech President Obama should give about the Iraq War (but won’t).”

With customary eloquence and unusual passion Cole tells the truth our political leaders dare not admit:

Continue reading “How (not) to counter terrorism”