Obama and Kerry struck a deal with the Afghani government to keep US troops in Afghanistan until sometime beyond 2014 last month. There is a slight possibility that the deal won’t actually go through, but it’s looking like it probably will. It seems like a good idea for us to maintain a small ground presence in Afghanistan, but the article cited above indicates that we’ll probably keep roughly 8000 troops in the country, which seems a bit excessive. Luckily the government of Afghanistan seems largely okay with the action, so it shouldn’t be detrimental to our relationship with the country’s government. And it seems like we’ll be using our forces to mostly fend off Al Qaeda and train the Afghani National Forces, which hopefully means the troops will be focused on more defensive actions than offensive actions. While it seems like 8000 troops is a bit excessive, it seems like an overall good thing for the US to keep some troops in Afghanistan for the next year.
I think it’s important to discuss what types of drone strikes there are, and the effects that they have, because there are definitely some distinctions involved in this technical warfare that makes certain strikes applicable in certain situations. This list is by no means meant to be complete, but I think it discusses some of the more common strikes used and what their purposes are. Look to this article and this article for references.
The most common types of drone strikes are signature strikes and targeted killing. A lot of people conflate these two types of attacks. While extremely similar, there are some key differences that make them different. Signature strikes are conducted upon individuals who’s names and identities aren’t known. They are conducted upon individuals whom the government believes fits the requirement of conducting a terrorist activity (which ends up being a rather loose definition), while targeted killing is conducted upon individuals whom we know for sure are terrorists. If we had killed bin Laden with a drone strike, that would have been targeted killing, not a signature strike. Signature strikes are more commonly cited as the more destabilizing and debilitating drone strikes conducted in Pakistan.
Two other types of drone strikes that are distinctly different from signature strikes and targeted killings are overt combat operation drone strikes and covert combat operation drone strikes. Overt strikes are done explicitly in conjunction with regular military operations. These are different than covert strikes, which are done covertly.
One final type of drone usage (that is not a strike) is surveillance drones. These are used, as the name implies, for surveillance purposes, not for attacking purposes. These drones do not have weapons equipped to them (although they certainly have the capacity to have them equipped) and are instead used for acquiring intelligence and tracking individuals and such.
This article presents several reasons (9, in fact) as to why US drone strikes are bad. Most of them are pretty convincing, so I’ll go ahead and unpack them–
The first argument presented is that drones only address proximate causes and don’t address the root cause of instability– the mindset of terrorists. The article indicates that diplomacy is far more effective and a better strategy to addressing the problems that drone strikes are meant to solve. I agree that drone strikes only address proximate causes, but I think the author mistakes another proximate cause, the mindset of terrorists, for a root cause. The real question is what drives the mindset, and how do we change it? There is a root cause to the mindsets, and it’s important for us to figure out how to prevent that mindset from continuing to be recreated.
The second argument presented is blowback terrorism, or the idea that drone strikes fuel people to join militant organizations. This couples well with the previous argument, as drone strikes are now only preventing proximate causes of militant attacks and causing more militants to be created (drones have become a proximate cause of terrorism themselves). While drones are incredibly effective at killing militants, they certainly create blowback terrorism. Several well-known terrorist attacks, including the New York Times Square Bomber Faizal Shahzad, were explicitly committed because of United States’ drone policies.
The third argument is that drone strikes cause a humanitarian crisis, causing Pakistanis to flee regions where strikes are occurring. This is the first argument presented that isn’t true. People have fled their homes in the FATA (where most drone-strikes are administered), however, it seems to have occurred because of terrorist strikes (it’s about half-way down the page in that article). Some have probably fled because of drone strikes, but it seems to be true that more have fled because of terrorists.
The fourth argument is that drones commit human rights violations, and that this is done because they kill civilians. This is a point that is in contention– a lot of the numbers on either side (drones do kill a lot of civilians versus drones don’t kill a lot of civilians) have been fudged. And there’s plenty of data to support either side. The only thing that is definitely true is that drones have caused civilian casualties, it’s just a question of how many they’ve caused.
The fifth argument is that US drone strikes undermine US credibility because the program lacks transparency and makes the United States seem hypocritical. This point is true and especially relevant as other actors begin to develop their drone programs and look to the United States for a precedent on how they should be acting. If the United States continues to conduct drone strikes in the way that it currently does, other actors will certainly do the same.
The sixth argument is fairly similar to the fifth, arguing that the United States sets a double standard with the usage of drone strikes. The people of this country certainly wouldn’t accept attack drones flying overhead (although there are certainly surveillance drones used in this country) so why should we expect people in other countries to do so?
The seventh argument is that drones cause state fragility. The reason this is true ties into the blowback terrorism argument– civilians feel as if their government isn’t able to properly protect them against a foreign threat, so they run to terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda in order to garner defenses against foreign countries. This in turn destabilizes the government as people have less faith in it.
The eighth argument is that drones draw attention away from nuclear security threats in Pakistan. This is another argument that I fundamentally disagree with– drone strikes are conducted in the name of stopping militants who could destabilize Pakistan, steal their nuclear weapons, and use them. Whether they are effective or not is a different question, but drone strikes definitely draw attention to the nuclear security threat in Pakistan.
The final argument is that drone strikes prevent the US from creating new agreements with various tribes in the FATA. This is pretty logical and goes along well with the blowback terrorism argument, as clearly people aren’t going to want to cooperate with a country who’s drone striking them constantly.
Ultimately, the drone program should be limited. I do believe that drones are effective at killing militants, but their current usage is obscene and needs to be restricted. I don’t think they should never be used (and I don’t think their usage can be stopped, especially considering that we’ve already set the precedent for other countries to begin using them), but there definitely needs to, at the very least, be more transparency in the program so the public and Congress can have more of a say in what occurs.
Guantanamo just celebrated its 12th year anniversary of being open yesterday. I wrote a post about Guantanamo about a month ago, but I’ll reiterate– it’s time to shut down Gitmo.
The article cited above makes a couple really good arguments– the most convincing one is the sheer lack of success in the prison. Of all 779 prisoners, only 7 have actually been convicted of providing support for terrorists. That’s an incredibly low success rate– less than 1%. That clearly makes the prison incredibly unsuccessful and practically useless. The article also indicates that of the other 772 prisoners, of the ones who were a part of terrorist organizations, their detainment in Guantanamo meant that they could never be put on a military trial.
Along with being a massive waste of effort, Gitmo is a massive waste of money. The article cited above also indicates that over the last 12 years, we’ve spent almost $5.25 billion on the prison total. It costs roughly 75 times the amount of money spent on federal prisons. Our economy is clearly still in an awful situation– spending less money on an ineffective prison would be an excellent way for the United States’ government to cut costs and save some money.
I’ve made a couple other arguments in a previous post about why we should close down Gitmo as well. It’s time for it to end.
One of the most problematic factors of our current drone program is that it results in blowback terrorism, which is the idea of revenge killings– terrorists commit acts of terror against the United States because of drone strikes. This operates under the same logic of previous terrorist attacks, in which the justification for the attacks were previous US policies. The first Iraq war is an excellent example of this– there were several attacks that were accredited to that intervention.
The most prominent example of this know is Faisal Shahzad, who was incarcerated for committing the Times Square Bombing. He said “I’m going to plead guilty a hundred times over because until the hour the U.S. pulls its forces from Iraq and Afghanistan and stops the drone strikes … we will be attacking the U.S” (my emphasis). This is obviously problematic, because it means that terrorist attacks will continue as long as we continue to do drone strikes.
This article by Jaya Ramachandran, a writer for The Palestine Chronicles, makes the argument that the status quo US drone policy triggers increased terrorism and causes a new arms race. There are a couple reasons why I think these arguments are true.
As far as terrorism goes, status quo US drone strikes justify people running to terrorist organizations and joining them. Our policy makes the Pakistani government seem weak and unable to protect the people. So, the people decide to join another organization that is powerful enough to protect them, AKA terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda. The article also correctly makes the blowback argument, which is the idea that our drone policy creates retaliation against the US. People such as Shahzad, the perpetrator of the New York Times Square attack a couple years ago, join terrorist organizations in order to get back at the US for the horrible things that drones do to people in various countries in the Middle East and Central Asia.
For the new arms race argument, the central premise is that when we use drones in an offensive, unregulated manner, other countries get the idea that it’s okay for them to do the same. And as the technology spreads and is developed by other countries, that becomes an increasingly destabilizing thing. Other countries can simply label their targets as terrorists and claim that they attacked their targets because the US set the precedent for them to do it. China could easily decide that various militant groups inside its country should be labeled as terrorist organizations and send a missile from above to destroy them. That could create more dissidents inside China who then decide to revolt against the government. People are already not very happy with the Chinese government– this could be the factor that sends them off the edge.
This article cites another article written by a guy named Boyle (which is an excellent article that can be found here; I won’t go into much detail on it in this post because I’ll write another post about it in the future) who indicts all of the authors who argue that drones are good, indicating that those people are war hawks who ignore the actual political costs associated with drone usage. It’s important to keep that in mind when reading any evidence to the contrary.
I’ll also have a couple more posts in the future about how we can change the drone program, but I’ll end this post with this– our current drone program can only do harm.