Rational Security

Drones Are Too Slow to Kill Terrorists

President Obama's magical thinking about how to defeat al Qaeda.

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

As a strategist, Barack Obama is a pretty good politician. His speech at the National Defense University on May 23 made this quite clear. For example, his passionate defense of drones showed that he is capable of acting aggressively, but at low cost and in a way that virtually eliminates the risk to U.S. servicemembers — all the while allowing the fight against al Qaeda to continue indefinitely. Something there for both Reds and Blues to like.

Other key elements of the Obama strategy have similarly broad appeal, ranging from the president’s stated goal of keeping our attacks focused on "high-value al Qaeda targets" to his commitment to continue "supporting transitions to democracy." Once again, it’s hard to conceive of much popular opposition, from the Right or Left, to either of these strategic aims. Even his call to deal with "the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism" will no doubt achieve some sort of resonance across the broad American political spectrum.

Sadly, political acumen all too often makes for poor strategy — as it surely does in this case. In the matter of drones, the problem is that the instrument itself — an unmanned but armed aircraft — has very serious operational and ethical constraints. During the past decade, over 400 drone attacks have taken place — the vast majority on President Obama’s watch, most of them striking on sovereign Pakistani territory. This is simply too slow a tempo, allowing enemy networks plenty of time to absorb whatever losses are inflicted and to recover from them. The problematic aerial offensive also comes at the serious cost of creating both outrage and instability in the countries where innocents are sometimes killed in drone attacks — particularly in places targeted for "signature strikes," where those in the crosshairs simply fit a suspicious profile.

The focus on "high-value targets" is closely related to the dependence on the use of drones, as the air attacks generally aim at hitting al Qaeda leaders. But this, too, is a case of going down a rabbit hole. For in a network — a loose-jointed, very flat organizational form — everybody is No. 3. Even the loss of No. 1, Osama bin Laden, has had little overall effect on al Qaeda, which has been able to return to Iraq, join the fight in Syria, keep up operations in Yemen and Somalia, and expand to Libya, Mali, and Nigeria — among other places. Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was fond of saying that al Qaeda was "on the verge of strategic defeat." Hardly. As the State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism, released late last week, points out, al Qaeda remains a serious threat, mostly due to its "decentralized, dispersed structure."

Another pillar of President Obama’s strategy, the call to address the grievances that give rise to terrorism, is a real head-scratcher, too. If all the people around the world who were subject to chronic poverty, misrule, and sheer, unrelenting injustice were to turn to terrorism, there would be more terrorists than ordinary citizens in any global census. The fact of the matter is that most who suffer do so without resort to the murder of innocents as a means of expressing their outrage. And the sources of grievances are so deeply rooted in specific cultures and their historical paths of development that to "address" them, as the president wishes, would call for nothing short of creating the kind of "new world order" that Bush the Elder envisioned and briefly thought might be possible some 20 years ago. The idea was DOA. It’s still dead.

Further, the notion of mending grievances, to my mind the most troubling aspect of the Obama strategy, was advanced in the speech at the National Defense University without reference at all to the possibility that American actions in the world might possibly be a real source of grievance. For example, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 remains a highly questionable use of force, and images from the conflict there have no doubt proved valuable recruiting tools for al Qaeda. And the president’s rather obtuse insistence that the war in Iraq has ended can only inflame the wound and deepen the sense of grievance, given the continuing, rising level of violence plaguing that very sad land.

For all the flawed thinking reflected in President Obama’s speech and the strategy it described, he made one powerful point: Our fundamental goal must be to "dismantle terrorist networks." However, his insight was watered down by a seeming lack of urgency in pursuing this goal and an apparent willingness to scale down our efforts in the war on terror while relying more on allies. Truly, allies are good to have, and they should be cultivated and motivated. But not with the idea that this somehow allows the United States to do less. For it will take all the best efforts of a global counterterrorism coalition operating in high gear to disrupt and destroy the rising dark networks spawned by al Qaeda.

And it should be realized that time is on the terrorists’ side. The longer they stay on their feet and fighting, the closer they come to acquiring true weapons of mass destruction. Radiological, chemical, or biological attack capabilities in the hands of a dispersed network would upend any notion of world order, because a network is simply not susceptible to the kind of retaliatory punitive threats that nations are. The prospect of mutual assured destruction may keep the thousands of Russian and American nuclear warheads safely locked away forever, but an al Qaeda network with just a few nukes would enjoy enormous coercive power over the world’s nations.

The irony of the situation is that President Obama has identified the right goal — focusing on enemy networks — but he has chosen almost all the wrong means by which to seek their disruption. Drones are too slow-acting, strategically, and create their own "drag" in the form of outrage at collateral damage. Targeting enemy leaders is highly unlikely to defeat networks whose cells operate with high degrees of autonomy. And the effort to identify and ameliorate grievances is inherently quixotic and, in fact, undercut by the damage caused by some of our own policies (like the invasion of Iraq).

Even the notion of spreading democracy, perhaps the most hallowed American policy aim in the world, has proved problematic — especially in the two major efforts undertaken over the past decade. The rise of representative government in Iraq — a result purchased at enormous cost — has seen rule handed over to a regime whose sentiments are becoming aligned more closely with Tehran than Washington. In Afghanistan, the fig leaf of democracy barely covers our acquiescence in the face of repeated election fraud and epic financial corruption.

No, the Obama strategy rolled out at the National Defense University is not going to work. The goal is correctly stated, but the means of reaching it are all wrong, comprising as they do a stale reprise of ineffective initiatives. What has not worked before is not going to start magically working now. If President Obama truly wants to take down terrorist networks, then he must focus relentlessly on the task, sending our elite forces after their cells wherever and whenever they can be found in the physical world, and on hacking their systems in cyberspace. These are the only means by which real peace might one day be restored — perhaps sooner than we think.

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