Home inFocus America's Global Reach (Summer 2013) Are Drones the Answer?

Are Drones the Answer?

James S. Robbins Summer 2013

A Navy X-47B drone does a fly by over the nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush after it was launched from the carrier off the coast of Virginia.

In these lean days of sequestration and budget cuts, the Defense Department has had to take a hard look at its programs and expenditures. Human resources is the largest budget outlay, and it is also one of the easiest things to cut. When times are tough, forces shrink. Fewer people are recruited, and not everyone who leaves the service is replaced. Equipment is mothballed against future contingencies or a better fiscal environment.

The problem with budget-driven force levels is that the limits imposed by American domestic politics do not necessarily correspond to the scope of international challenges. Reducing the number and type of forces limits the number and type of options available to decision-makers, and requires constraining strategic objectives accordingly.

One proposed answer to reduced force structures is to increase the use of unmanned drones, Special Operations Forces (SOF) and CIA paramilitaries to fill the gaps. These types of capabilities have arguably been successful in the war on terrorism, either as stand-alone assets or acting in concert with local conventional forces. This approach is appealing to the Obama administration because it is low-cost, low-risk, and has been tactically effective, at least in a counterterrorism role.

In his May 21, 2013 speech at the National Defense University, President Obama defined the threats facing the United States as “lethal yet less capable Al Qaeda affiliates; threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad; [and] homegrown extremists.” He said that the war as defined by the previous administration—which he mischaracterized as “a boundless ‘global war on terror'”—was over. He explained that the scale of today’s terror threat “closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11.” But this observation can be read two ways, since the period pre-9/11 was when al-Qaeda was growing and at its most lethal. It was also a time when the United States was less willing to take offensive action against the growing threat. However, Mr. Obama committed the U.S. to continuing to conduct “a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.” This is the environment in which drone/SOF forces are at their most effective.

The drone/SOF approach has been very effective as an offensive tool against international terrorist networks. While the numbers are disputed, it is believed that drones have successfully been used to target several thousand militants and terrorist leaders in the last decade, primarily in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Special Operators also have a distinguished record, most notably taking down Osama bin Laden in 2011. These types of forces can be deployed more rapidly and with a smaller footprint, for lower cost and with a shorter logistical tail than conventional troops. Most importantly they are employed in an offensive, proactive role, hunting down terrorists in their bases of operation, denying the radicals the luxury of a safe haven. This offensive posture, utilizing the appropriate capabilities, is the major difference between pre- and post-9/11 counterterrorism strategy.

However, as useful as these forces are in responding to the threat posed by international terrorism, they are highly limited in other applications. Drones and SOF are effective against unconventional, non-state threats, particularly when operating or based in permissive environments and acting against largely defenseless adversaries. They can eliminate high-value targets in radical extremist networks. These tools are excellent for what amounts to a persistent, high-tech assassination program.

Drones are also useful as a means of avoiding having to deal with the political implications of an increasing population of captured terrorists. In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, Yemeni activist Ibrahim Mothana said that Yemenis believe the administration seeks to avoid “the Guantanamo dilemma of indefinite detentions without charge by killing suspects in Yemen rather than trying to capture them.”

But drones and Special Operators cannot cope with missions that have traditionally fallen to conventional forces. They cannot by themselves command a battlefield or defeat enemy conventional troops. They have limited to no deterrent value above the unconventional level. In short, while they are the tools of choice to respond to the terror threat, they are not an answer to the decline in America’s conventional power. They are effective as a surgeon’s scalpel; but sometimes a hammer is required.

A Capability, Not a Strategy

While the drone/SOF combination provides an effective capability at the tactical level, it is no substitute for a strategy. Taking direct, offensive action against radical networks may be necessary, but it is only one aspect of a full-phased approach to counter-terrorism. It is the ultimate kinetic answer, but that is not always responsive to the question.

President Obama recognized in his NDU speech that “most, though not all, of the terrorism we faced is fueled by a common ideology—a belief by some extremists that Islam is in conflict with the United States and the West, and that violence against Western targets, including civilians, is justified in pursuit of a larger cause.” To combat this threat, he said, “We need all elements of national power to win a battle of wills, a battle of ideas.” Mr. Obama noted, “In the absence of a strategy that reduces the wellspring of extremism, a perpetual war—through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments—will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.” Unfortunately, the United States has not met that strategic challenge.

While Mr. Obama says that the old “war on terror” is over, the threat in some respects has grown stronger. Paradoxically, the United States can take out every radical extremist in its sights and still lose the war. Not only is there is no kinetic solution to the strategic challenge, in some respects the U.S. tactical approach may be making it worse.

Mr. Obama’s definition of the international terror threat is extremely narrow, comprising the rump of al-Qaeda and vaguely defined threats to U.S. diplomatic and business interests. He omitted mention of any other radical groups, state-supported terrorist entities, or rogue states that engage directly in terrorism. He also limits the strategic challenge only to violent groups, not to ideological fellow-travelers who are just as radical but engaged primarily in political struggle. This is the primary shortfall in U.S. strategy, because whether or not Islamist terrorism is advancing, political Islam is.

For America’s Islamist strategic adversaries, terrorism is a means, not an end. Their objective is to create orthodox Islamic states, however defined. Low-level violence became their chosen means primarily because, when the age of modern Islamist terrorism kicked off in the 1990s, they represented a weak minority in their home countries. They could not stand up to the security services of the authoritarian regimes they faced. The need to pursue a guerilla approach was spelled out in Osama bin Laden’s 1996 Declaration of War, in which he counseled those who wanted to take more direct action to wait until the “apostate regimes” had been weakened and were ready to topple.

The Obama administration only recognizes the threat of violent radicalism and ignores the challenges posed by Islamic extremism per se. This crucial disconnect was well in evidence in the wake of the Arab Spring revolts. The U.S. government hailed the electoral victories of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist parties in Egypt as evidence of the bankruptcy of terrorism as an agent of political change. The State Department said “people who once might have gone into al-Qaeda see an opportunity for a legitimate Islamism.” Even in his NDU speech Mr. Obama said that the U.S. must support “transitions to democracy in places like Egypt and Tunisia and Libya because the peaceful realization of individual aspirations will serve as a rebuke to violent extremists.”

But the political programs of the Islamist political groups parties are largely indistinguishable from that of the terrorists. “Legitimate Islamism” is simply al-Qaeda by other means. The terrorists quickly corrected the administration’s confusion by claiming victory in the Arab Spring. American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, soon to be the target of a successful drone strike, wrote in 2011, “For the scholars and activists of Egypt to be able to speak again freely, it would represent a great leap forward for the mujahidin.” Yaya Ibrahim, editor of the al-Qaeda magazine Inspire, wrote, “The revolutions that are shaking the thrones of dictators are good for the Muslims, good for the [mujahidin] and bad for the imperialists of the West and their henchmen in the Muslim world. We are very optimistic and have great expectations of what is to come.”

Do Drones Make Things Worse?

Drones and SOF are not the answer to the ideological ascendancy of Islamism, and in fact the administration’s preferred counterterrorism tool is making things worse. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Project released in June 2013, there is widespread opposition to drone strikes in the Muslim world. In part this is due to “a widespread perception that the U.S. acts unilaterally and does not consider the interests of other countries.” Disapproval ratings for drone strikes rank in the 70-85 percent range, with approval ratings mostly in the single digits.

Despite his best efforts, Mr. Obama has failed to connect with the world’s Muslims. Confidence in Mr. Obama, favorability towards the United States and approval of U.S. international policies are all lowest in Muslim countries, and have declined precipitously from 2009-2012. In some cases Mr. Obama’s approval numbers are lower than those of George W. Bush in 2008. Prior to Mr. Obama’s June 2013 trip to South Africa, the Muslim Lawyers Association in Pretoria called for his arrest and prosecution on war crimes charges under the Rome Statute. So even as the United States continues to strike the heads from the terrorist hydra, the body keeps growing, and more heads keep appearing.

The administration’s answer to this problem is to promote local development. “We must help countries modernize economies, upgrade education, and encourage entrepreneurship,” Mr. Obama said at NDU, “because American leadership has always been elevated by our ability to connect with people’s hopes, and not simply their fears.” Inspiring words, but a decidedly mixed history. A decade of promoting development in Afghanistan has not lessened the Taliban threat. Promoting Western-style economic development was more Hosni Mubarak’s plan for Egypt than that of the Muslim Brotherhood government that replaced him. In general, these types of development programs are precisely what the Islamists want to be rid of, since they view them as part of a western colonialist agenda.

Mr. Obama says that the United States is not at war with Islam, but the Islamists are very much at war with the West. This may take the form of violent extremism or political radicalism, but until the U.S. has the will to recognize that challenge and face it directly, no number of drones and Special Operators will make a difference. The unconventional threat is rapidly becoming a state-based challenge. And if the strategic equation continues to move in the direction it is heading, conventional forces will be needed more than ever.

James S. Robbins is the Deputy Editor of Rare.us, a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors, and Senior Fellow for National Security Affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council.