Best Defense

Why Obama’s drone strategy won’t work: Because that ain’t no way to win a war

Why Obama’s drone strategy won’t work: Because that ain’t no way to win a war

By Col. Gary Anderson, USMC (ret.)
Best Defense department of fourth-generation warfare

If a drone strike hit the White House during a cabinet meeting, killing the president and his key advisors and a second took out the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, it would be a national tragedy. But the country would not collapse. That is because the United States is a complex, adaptive system. Such systems don’t have single or even multiple points of failure. Some small tinpot dictatorships may have discreet points of vulnerability, but most nation-states are very resilient. That is why this nation’s economy and even its airline industry did not collapse as Osama bin Laden hoped after September 11, 2001.

However, we now know that al Qaeda and its affiliates are also complex, adaptive systems. Why, then, do we think that targeting what we consider key terrorists with drone strikes will bring down their network as a whole? We lose credibility as organizations such as al-Shabab, which have been repeatedly targeted, grow stronger even as we claim to have killed key leaders with our wonder weapons. In Afghanistan, the Taliban, which has been the most targeted of such organizations, appears to be alive and well even as we withdraw our combat troops.

This is not an indictment of the drones themselves or of the Special Forces which also carry out strikes against key individual terrorist leaders. Both are fine tactical tools and we absolutely need them in our kit. But they are only tools. By themselves, they do not represent a strategy. The problem is that our present leadership simply does not recognize the nature of the war we are fighting. Indeed, the Obama administration has gone to great lengths to pretend it is not a war at all. Worse still, people who should know better, are aiding and abetting them in their self delusion. At least the Bush administration was honest about the nature of our adversaries; the strategy for defeating al Qaeda and its allies may have been flawed, but it wasn’t self-delusional. The Bush administration waged war.

Now we have Amnesty International talking about hauling Americans up on war crimes charges over drone-related civilian deaths. By classifying drone attacks as law enforcement operations, the well-meaning liberal lawyers who permeate this administration have unduly complicated what used to be a war on terror. The law of armed conflict is much more forgiving regarding noncombatant casualties than the rules regarding law enforcement, but President Obama has let his staff lawyers hoist him on his own petard by playing cops and robbers. Al Qaeda is not the Mafia, and al-Shabab is not the Hole in the Wall Gang.

Al Qaeda and its affiliated global partners are waging what is now known as Fourth-Generational War; they are on non-state organizations acting like nation-states. Organized violence had been reserved as the province of nation-states since the end of the Thirty Years War. Hezbollah, al Qaeda, al-Shabab, and the Taliban have ended that. A non-state actor did as much damage to America as the attack on Pearl Harbor 12 years ago, but the administration is in denial that we are at war at all. It may be a small war, and it does not demand sacrifices such as rationing and conscription, but we are facing a very determined foe.

Fighters captured from such groups should be treated as prisoners of war. That means that they aren’t released until their group gives up or comes to the negotiating table. If we start treating this war in that manner, the hand wringing about Guantanamo that we have endured for years will have no basis. The only trials should be war crimes trials if sufficient evidence exists regarding the crimes.

Drone and commando strikes alone won’t end this war. Often, killing old tired leaders is seen by more ambitious and ruthless young fighters as a job opportunity — time to move up. New leaders, too, should be targeted, but the real key is denying non-state actors sanctuaries to hatch plots and support more attacks on us. Africans are leading the way against al-Shabab in Somalia, and Nigerian vigilantes ousted an al Qaeda affiliate from an entire region in that country. No American troops were needed, but we should be figuring out how to replicate such behavior in Yemen and Syria where al Qaeda affiliates are breeding like flies. Psychological attrition will not work, but it can hurt us badly if we do not take a realistic view of this Fourth-Generation War and wage it accordingly.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel who teaches alternative analysis (AKA "red teaming") at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He is currently on sabbatical in Afghanistan. (Tom: Where else would a professor go on sabbatical?)