« Pyrrhic Victory »? US drones in strategic perspective

Last June, I wrote a post (Fr.) summarizing current questions and assessments about the use of drones by the Obama administration in which I concluded that that had the potential to raise further issues. Last week, the debate inside the US bounced back with the release of a leaked memo by the Department of Justice outlining legal criteria for targeting American citizens, and with the confirmation hearing of John Brennan before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee. It now seems that legal and ethical questions trump  strategic considerations on the relation between short-term tactical efficiency and long-term strategic outcomes of using that weapon in a broader campaign the US is waging against Al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

To be fair, those two realms of ethical issues and strategic efficiency are intimately intertwined. If waging a war necessitates to frame narratives toward a broader range of audiences, it also implies that « winning » is achievable once those audiences become convinced that political objectives are met, even if partially, and that  our will has been imposed on the adversary (which is less than evident in case of actors pursuing absolute goals). Yet, the American strategic imagination is mainly idealistic in its mainstream current: war is waged according to values. Furthermore, the set of norms and rules established and enforced through the US Hegemony, even if it proves elastic at some times, constrains military actions and strategic decision. That implies that ethical and legal issues arising from the use of armed drones in at least nominally sovereign states may have strategic consequences. Put it otherwise: the tactical efficiency of drones has to be considered in the right way, as a temporary achievement and not as a silver bullet, because of the potential unintended consequences on the long run and the risk of « Pyrrhic victory ».

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Stabilization: closing the doors or closing the Gap?

In two recent articles, two French prominent scholars lead an assault against the French intervention in Mali. The first is from Olivier Zajec – a researcher at ISC – in Le Monde Diplomatique (In French and behind a paywall unfortunately): he basically explains that western interventions in the last decade are characterized by a lack of strategic vision which amounts to a strategic hiccup. Unable to draw the right conclusions of past quagmires and failures, Western States would be doomed to repeat the same mistakes, especially regarding four elements he deems  necessary in order to succeed:

  1. a failure to assess the threat on its own right (by labeling « terrorists » any insurgent or ethnoseparatist movement)
  2. a failure to see how legitimacy (and especially that of the local government) should preclude any long term commitment
  3. a failure to recognize the limited role our military forces should play in unlocking the tactical situation in order to let local dynamics freely develop
  4. a failure to plan an exit strategy which would amounts to a greater  political freedom of action

The second is from Olivier Roy – a world known scholar on Muslim societies – in Le Monde: his main argument highlights the dilemma raised by the characterization of the enemy as an irreconcilable terrorist. Indeed, by labeling the adversary as a unitary actor, one would ignore the more complex political and social dynamics at play, thus precluding any chance to disrupt AQ by letting the local actors whom it tries to be a parasite to give up their protection. Put otherwise: that would prevent any opportunity to collaborate with less extremists actors whose agendas are more amenable to compromise.

Of course, both articles have strong argument, and I share them for a large part. But I disagree with each on two points:

1) The conditions outlined by Olivier Zajec are too idealistic. In other words, they preclude any intervention or stabilization on the basis that they are not likely to be met in the real world. To be fair, those four principles could be met, but only during the course of the operation.

2) hence my second point: those two pieces (and especially Zajec’s) seem to ignore the necessity to study strategy in a dialectical way. A strategy of exit, tactical operations which would unlock the situation and even a fair and autonomous analysis of the enemy would depend on the adversary’s strategy, its capabilities and its own political freedom of action and capability to unlock the situation on the ground. Iraq is a good example: the ’07-’08 surge unlocked the military situation and let local dynamics develop with a relatively low US pressure and inducement. But to be fair, during the surge, US needed to pressure, induce, persuade and leverage the various political actors (first and foremost Prime Minister Maliki). On the other hand, both pieces fail to fully recognize AQ’s strategy to embed itself in the locals’ very social fabric: when Roy uses the analogy with a parasite, he seems to forget that it is more than that. Jihadists often use gaps and fault lines, first seducing but also using coercion and intimidation in order to establish their social and political order. Of course, local societies may be tempted to rise against foreign fighters, but as the failed 2005 revolt in Anbar should demonstrate, it is likely to be crushed without external alliance (in that case, the successful alliance between several cheiks and the US military at fall ’06).

To me, closing the gap (that is, in Odierno’s words, to boost the host-government legitimacy) is a far more realistic way, under certain circumstances, than closing the doors (letting local dynamics creating more chaos and instability). The colonial era is over, and thus no western country can stabilize alone: it has to build coalitions both outside and inside the targeted state’s society. But on the other hand, as we are in a hierarchical world (maybe it could be or even it should be otherwise, but it is not), western states are the most powerful and hence have more chances to assert their interests than local states. In that perspective, if such a state (or its leaders) perceives that it has stakes and interests to intervene and stabilize, and if it calculates that the obstacles and anticipated costs are low enough to allow that, it is likely that it will act accordingly. Eventually, by doing so, it is also likely that the best course would be to help build the legitimacy of the local government. It is obviously a dilemma, since an external-imposed legitimacy is more difficult to enforce and sustain, but no dilemma can be resolved by starting from what the world should be rather than what it really is…

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