« 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 ».

How to deal with a threat? the use of drones as strategic choice

In order to understand the use of armed drones by the Obama administration, one has to consider the significance it is endowed by political and military leaders. It seems obvious that the tactics of ‘targeted killings’ is a legacy of 9/11 and of the way the Bush administration choose to perceive and act against the threat posed by AQ’s bomb attacks. In other words, in order to deal with that threat, the American national security apparatus developped a set of tactics organized around « finding, fixing, finishing » AQ’s leadership. But in a sense, those tactics – and the eventual strategy of dealing with AQ & affiliates through attrition and decapitation – emerged mainly from a set of bureaucracies and small coalitions of individuals across the governmental agencies. That implies that when Obama inherited that structure and its procedures to deal with the perceived threat, he chose to progressively centralize the decision-making process with regards to how to deal with discovered militants leaders in often remote areas. In a pragmatic way, the president allowed to develop a process relying on the selective use of force in order to both decrease political and human costs and increase the systemic effects on ‘extremists’ organizations and movements. To be fair, drones weren’t at the time the most effective way to deal with that threat: JSOC raids were more efficient because they focused on capture or, at least, gathering and analysis of elements retrieved from those raids. Yet, the most important point is that both Obama and John Brennan, as his top counter-terrorism adviser, have been willing to assert a more centralized command and control in order to avoid letting those programs living their own lives.


Put otherwise: the choice to rely on drones is a partial answer to the inherent dilemma in dealing with AQ and its affiliates. Indeed, on the one hand, the US still perceive AQ as a threat, whether existential or not, and – in a broader way – as a threat to global and regional stability. In addition, the very « zero-risk » culture which permeates the realm of politics in the US implies that no president can afford to let a plot develop and succeed. On the other hand, the costly decade of occupations in both Afghanistan and Iraq seems to be interpreted by policymakers as the path to avoid in the near future. Within that framework, drones and covert operations (embedded in a broader « small footprint » approach) appear as the less despicable solution.

The consequences of secrecy: 

To be fair, there are several reasons which explain the secrecy surrounding the drone wars. Many are obvious, since the program is run by agencies accustomed to operate in secrecy and since it has been designed as a covert operation (even if it is not a « pure » CA because of a shift toward a deterrence approach and also because it has become critical to show the US is still able to strike its enemies). Other reasons are less: in order to operate efficiently, drones have to benefit from either complicity or tacit agreement from local governments; furthermore, there’s an operational need to protect local sources and operators on the ground. And of course, since the very process of selecting targets and authorizing the use of force lies somewhere in a near-constitutional « grey area », it appeared critical for the administration to restrict public access to both processes and justifications.

Problem is when that  covert program is fully disclosed to the various audiences whom it was intended to remain secret. To be fair, it seems that compartmentalizing several activities within the military and broader « national security » realm is somewhat easier than one would expect. But, once disclosed, there’s understandably a high risk of political backlash,  all the more that that program (and the aerial platform it is supposed to be organized around, even if it obscures the very importance of more conventional assets in targeting « militants ») bears with it a lot of fears and expectations drawn from American popular culture regarding robots and artificial intelligence.

HAL 9000

HAL 9000

For now, it seems that concerns regarding civilians  – while outlined by  reports  released last fall on casualties and the impact of strikes – has less coverage in the US press than the issue of targeting American citizens. If it’s the case, despite apparent popular support for the use of drones in order to deal with AQ (a survey from last Spring shows that 62% of Americans approve it), it could be a potential risk. But it seems likely to be a constitutional matter between the Congress and the President, the former trying to balance what appears to some as unprecedented life-and-death powers in the hands of the latter. Put otherwise: the request for a greater accountability draws on popular fear regarding what is seen as a discretionary and somewhat arbitrary power to execute an American citizen but has to be understood as a move to constrain the executive branch on National Security matters.

Drones: the US’ face to the world?

Source: Los Angeles Times

Source: Los Angeles Times

Embedding the use of drones in the foreign policy analysis (and a broader IR perspective) looks like similar debates with regards to the use of cyber attacks. Indeed, it seems that one unintended consequence of the use of drones is that it is more and more equated with Obama’s strategy and even foreign policy. Hence a critical reflection:

In a hierarchical world, the significance of an offensive use of a new weapon/asset by the hegemonic power is twofold. On the one hand, that use highlights the hierarchical nature of power relations (both in terms of material power and of normative discrimination). Put otherwise, not only the US can afford to use drones without being threatened by a similar use by other states on its territory, but it is also able to rely on drones due to hierarchical relations with local governments. On the other hand, that same move can trigger resistance and reluctance from other countries and societies because it reveals the true nature of power relations (and, to some, the true nature of what is too often depicted as an « American domination of the world »). In short, the use of drones may feed hostile narratives.

Source: Pew Research Center

Source: Pew Research Center

And here, civilian casualties and the impact of drones « persistent presence » matter a lot. First because of the sometimes inaccuracy of ‘signature strikes’ (assuming that military-aged men killed in strike are not ‘collateral damages’). But war being a messy and nasty realm, mostly because those strikes could prove counterproductive on the long run if their tactical prowess would be cancelled by their political impact on local societies.

Conclusion: the illusion of the control of force

The use of drone strikes as a tool in a strategy of disruption, decapitation and attrition in order to deal with Al-Qaeda is the result of a choice. Of course, like every choice, it bears with it risks, dangers and pitfalls. For instance if that tactics would lead to identify the strategy (and the policy, even the policymaker behind it) with the tool. Given the fantasy surrounding it, it seems likely that that would lead to undermine broader goals.

But there’s another illusion  yet not analyzed here, namely the very notion that, once unleashed, lethal force – even used in a selective way – could really be controlled and its consequences mastered. In a sense, The Onion depicted in an humorous way the very metaphor of drones escaping their masters.

Stéphane Taillat

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