Perils and promises of drones: a strategic appraisal

A short post to outline several ideas and thoughts about the use of drones in the US strategy against Al Qaeda.

1) we have to grasp the political significance of Obama’s choice to rely on drones and SOF in order to « disrupt, dismantle » Al Qaeda:

The president narrowed its political goals: fighting Al Qaeda and its allies or affiliates without relying on state building, and without committing too much troops on the ground in a comprehensive counterinsurgency approach. Instead, Obama understood his role as fighting the jihadist organization in order to deter further attacks against the US.

2) that goal led to a new strategy:

Using drones strikes as well as SOF raids (or other more conventional assets) is done through an attrition strategy. The main mechanism through which attrition is supposed to work is to inflict casualties to the enemy organization faster than it can replace it. It is not primarily intended to exhaust the adversary, but to raise its costs to pursue the war. In other words, exhaustion is only one possible outcome. At the other end of the spectrum, complete annihilation is another one.

3) physical and psychological effects of drone strikes:

Drones are not used only to inflict physical casualties, thus undermining the operational capabilities of AQ/its affiliates to control effectively a territory, to keep safe havens or to prepare further attacks. They also have psychological impacts, mostly on the networks, and especially on its weaker nodes, that is those actors amenable to leave the fight, or to hide in order to escape the strikes. As such, the strategy which relies on drones is not only an attrition strategy, but also a part of a more comprehensive deterrence strategy. That’s what « disrupting » means: inflicting systemic blows that undermine the operational capabilities of a given network as a whole.

On the material side of the effects, drones have proven highly effective as a decapitation tool. On the psychological one, it’s difficult to really assess the effects, but it seems that drones, used in addition to other tools, may have produced subversive effects.

4) Pressuring Al Qaeda?

The problem is the relevance of such a strategy on the long run. A « pure » attrition strategy would likely lead to a slaughter, since AQ and its affiliates have been able to reinforce or to replace the losses. What could be the threshold that would trigger an annihilation, or exhaustion of AQ? The « search and destroy » experience in Vietnam should remember us that relying only on measurable metrics (especially in terms of « body count ») is fraught with cognitive biases.

On the other hand, a « pure » deterrence strategy is difficult to wage against non-state actors, and especially « irregular » organizations. It is thus possible to limit AQ’s capabilities to wage a campaign of attacks, but up to a point. Zero-risk is not really a realist option.

That’s why using drones strikes – both more precise and less costly than conventional counterinsurgency i.e. as much efficient as a strategy can be – should prove more relevant on the long run if used as a way to sustain the pressure against AQ and its affiliates. The goal would not be to dismantle or to disrupt (not to speak of neutralize), but instead to compel AQ to stay on a defensive stance (or, at least, a less offensive one).

In addition, relying on drones and SOF raids, while highlighting other potential costs (in diplomatic terms since it is necessary to achieve an agreement with the host nation, with the very exception of failed states maybe; in terms of domestic support since both the military institutions and the public opinion could raised several political obstacles, in terms of local support since drones may have a negative impact on the local population), should not be thought as a silver bullet. Furthermore, relying on such an indirect way to deal with AQ should not let the military institutions to forget its institutional experience from Iraq and Afghanistan.

In short, that strategy has to adapt to the evolving character of the war, which is both conditioned by internal calculus and political bargaining and of course, by the adversary’s strategy.

Stéphane TAILLAT


Unleash Hell!!! « War logic » and the war in Iraq

As far as I can remember, the biblical story of David vs. Goliath has never been to me the story of a bright victory of weakness against strength On the contrary, I’ve always thought that David was the strongest of both opponents. Not only does he rely on the will of God but he also draws upon his cleverness in order to defeat his adversary. It’s not so counter-intuitive as it could appear at a first glance: power doesn’t necessarily imply strength or having much more material capabilities.

From « war » to « logic of war »:

In the last issue of Res Militaris, Laure Bardiès wrote a smart and insightful piece in which she argues to give up descriptive categories  and instead promote analytical ones in order to better explain and understand contemporary wars.

Basically, her arguments draw on weberian sociology to build ideal-types that could account for the logic of actors (by which she means not only the belligerents, but also different actors, pursuing different and sometimes diverging interests, inside a political-military apparatus). The reason is clear: categories we are used to employ in order to depict contemporary conflicts are either too descriptive (i.e. tied to the formal characteristics of wars) or too normative (i.e. shaped by one actor’s perception of the other). « Asymmetric » war (war between a « weak » and a « strong ») falls in the former while « irregular » war (war between state-soldiers and terrorists/insurgents) is clearly typical of the latter.

She proposes to look further: according to Clausewitz, war is waged for political purpose. Means as well as ends are a function of the significance of the fight given by the actor. It could thus be possible to design ideal types that could account for their logic, the dynamic interplay between them and their evolution in time. Accordingly, she offers to transform the categories of « total war » and « limited war » into « total war logic » and « limited war logic ».

In order to build her ideal type, she suggests to analyze the relations between issues, objectives and means.

Thus, a « total war logic » would exist when an actor has absolute issues at stake (like its survival), design accordingly its objectives as imposing its will whatever the costs and thus relies on every means at its disposal in order to do so. On the contrary, a « limited war logic » would be characterized by relative issues, objectives restricted by a threshold beyond whom costs would overcome the expected benefits, and  thus means would be quantitatively restricted.

Eventually, Laure Bardiès concludes by articulating a dynamic interaction between those logic:  what if an actor has a « limited war logic » against his opponent waging (in its own perception) a « total war »? Obviously, the latter has the advantage owing to its greater capacity to abide costs. In addition, she argues that the real difference between both logic lies in two criteria

1) the determination to pursue the armed struggle

2) the proportion of means effectively engaged in comparison to the total amount of means at the actor’s disposal

Applying « war logic » to the US War in Iraq:

Empirically, it is difficult to apply that model. Of course, this is precisely the function that ideal type is supposed to perform: to serve as a reference in order to analyze contingent situations.  No historical configuration would exactly fit with one of the ideal type, the greatest probability being that it would be situated somewhere between both poles of the spectrum (or, more precisely, that it would shift from one to another due to the dynamic characteristic of war). But, if we take the three elements of the model, the Iraq war (as waged by the Bush administration) would fit in the following table:

In that case, issues and objective are congruent with a « total war logic » while means comply more with the « limited war logic ». Indeed, issues were raised at a very high level, with the Bush administration arguing that Saddam Hussein could use weapons of mass destruction or funnel them to terrorist groups in order to wage war on the US soil. Objectives were also designed as absolute: first to destroy the regime and then to transform Iraq in a stable, democratic State allied with the US in its struggle against Al Qaeda. On the contrary, means were mostly limited, both in the invasion phase and in the subsequent stage of occupation (the main strategy during the first years being to withdraw troops as soon as possible).

In order to understand that gap, one should examine the very reasons of the war against Saddam’s regime, which have nothing to do with the real threat it posed to the US (even if Bush and his counselors thought it could be a real threat at the time), but more with several ideologically biased perspectives about  the threat. First, the invasion was supposed to prevent (or preempt in the Bush’s rhetoric) attack from Saddam and second to deter any aggression. Instead of assessing the threat of non state actors, the Bush administration at the time was more concerned by the threat posed by rogue states. Second, that move was a way to fix the problem posed by the the regime of sanctions imposed on Iraq. Third, the war was also a mean to restore the status of the US after 9/11.

That gap could also be explained by the way Donald Rumsfeld and several strategists in the Pentagon thought war should be now waged: with limited, but more lethal and decisive, means. In their view, technological advance coupled with operational excellence would suffice to overthrow the regime.

Eventually, ideology had a vote: neoconservative Weltanschauung – which envisioned democracy as the « natural regime » of any society – coupled with the administration’s reluctance to nation building led to a poorly planned post-Saddam Iraq.

With regards to the means, they were mostly limited both in quantity (troops deployed on the ground were mostly insufficient to perform the task of securing Iraq after the fall of the regime and achieving Bremer’s revolutionary agenda) and in quality (meaning here that the strategy was oriented toward withdrawal).

Incoherent strategy: 

That discrepancy between issues and objectives on the one hand, and means on the other hand led to strategic incoherence.  In order to understand the difficulties encountered by the US military in Iraq, one has to add two critical variables.

  1. the dominant elements of the strategic and military culture insist on the necessity to achieve a decisive victory. In other words, even a « limited war logic » can imply the maximum use of force in order to win a quick victory (and one could add: all the more decisive that issues and objectives are « limited »). In the case of Iraq, that logic implied to deliver the maximum amount of force in order to topple the regime. The problem is that, once Saddam defeated, a much harder challenged emerged, which would have requested a much larger amount of political patience and strategic flexibility. Consequently, in the absence of a decisive victory in the other goal (building a stable and democratic Iraq), the Bush administration shifted to denial. That produced a lowering of the expectations regarding the final stage to achieve before withdrawing and releasing sovereignty to the Iraqi government. Hence, the hope raised by a temporary surge of force in order to achieve a decisive victory against insecurity. The fact that the Bush administration took such a long time to accept the challenge of the task and the reality suggests that the « total war logic » was almost rhetorical. The fact that it accepted to lower its expectations suggests that the logic became less and less « total » and more and more « limited » with time (and especially after Bush secured a second mandate). Nevertheless, the capabilities of the US to endure such a military effort on the long run is tied to both determination (especially regarding the political leaders and the officers deployed on the ground) and endurance (with regards to military capabilities to sustain a high tempo rotation cycle).
  2. given that first element, it is worth to underline the link between that culture of « decisive and quick victory » on the one hand and the reliance on a strategy of annihilation on the other hand. That link is in no way necessary. Insurgents’ strategy suggests that a « total war logic » can instead rely on a strategy of attrition, in order to raise the opponent’s costs until he decides to give up. Facing such a strategy, the Bush administration (and the theater commander) could not longer rely on the sole use of military force in order to win the decision. If the surge achieved several of the objectives set by the administration, it was a consequence of multiple factors, in which the US strategy is only  a part (even if I argue that it is the most important as it benefited from other political dynamics at play which it partially shaped in return). Although eventually that strategy morphed into a « hybrid » form, associating annihilation goals (dismantling « irreconcilable » actors) and attrition means (the use of SOF raids in order to disrupt AQI’s organization and leadership).

Time and interests:

That model is highly significant if one considers the very importance of time and interests. Actually, interests are what shape issues and objectives. Those interests lie in various actors and can take several forms: material as well as ideological, bureaucratic as well as corporate. In some case, they even can affect the whole society (when survival is at stake). But that doesn’t imply those interests to be stable or able to determinate issues and objectives in a strict causal way. A narrower view tends to show how the margin of maneuver for political leaders is more important than one would expect. Notwithstanding, interests play a role in limiting or raising issues.

But that’s also a function of time: the longer a conflict, the more the tendency to shift from one logic to the other. In the case of the war waged by the Bush administration in Iraq, determination and stubbornness was a byproduct of high issues and unrealistic objectives. But determination translated into denial and did not lead to raise the level of means deployed in Iraq, with the very exception of the surge. But Bush’s decision to escalate is not a proof a a « total war logic », it has more to do with the bias toward the need to achieve decisive victory. On issues and objectives, time tended to lower Bush’s expectations and focused his attention on more limited objectives in Iraq.  Quite the opposite, Obama’s narrowing of issues and objectives fit more with the « total war logic »: by elevating the real objective of the US toward dismantling Al Qaeda and escalating drones strikes and SOF raids, the 44th president showed his willingness and determination to achieve victory.

In short, the Iraq war case study suggests that means are not necessarily determined by issues and objectives, but by other factors. Among them is the perception of what military force can achieve in terms of military and political effects. In return, that false perception gave way to a misleading assessment on those effects, leading to the belief that the US should avoid long term commitment on the ground in the near future.

To conclude, the war waged in Iraq by the Bush administration may fit the « war logic » model proposed by Laure Bardies. Indeed,both  determination and the relative level of means are  a function of the duration of the conflict. But, as her model deals more with the coherence between issues, objectives and means, it is worth to complete it with intermediary variables that would help to explain and understand the disjunction between those elements. In short, her work is the first step toward a better understanding of today’s dynamics of conflict. Further researches programs should focus on relevant question as the supposed role of the public opinion – or more accurately, its perception by political elites – in shaping strategic decision; while mine are more focused on the way « war logic » is an important component in the process of shaping political and military effects.. Because not only is strategy a bridge between ends and means, but its function is to generate effects.


Politique étrangère des Etats-Unis et stratégie (9): guerres par procuration

Avec les contraintes budgétaires accrues et la perception par les élites politico-militaires d’une relativisation de leur puissance, les Etats-Unis semblent revenir à un choix ancien: celui des guerres par procuration (proxy wars).

Au-delà d’une analyse historique de ce choix, il convient d’en saisir les raisons et motivations d’une part, les enjeux réels d’autre part. Passant d’une approche stratégique tout azimut à la nécessité de hiérarchiser des priorités entre leurs objectifs, les Etats-Unis doivent aussi apprendre à gérer une tactique certes peu coûteuse mais potentiellement dangereuse.

1) une approche rentable?

Comprendre la préférence de l’Administration actuelle pour les guerres par procuration nécessite de s’interroger non seulement sur la perception coûts/avantages qu’elle en a, mais également sur les facteurs qui pèsent dans la formulation stratégique.

Sous un certain angle, les guerres par procuration semblent effectivement rentables. En effet, elles permettent d’engager des opérations de guerre de manière indirecte. De ce fait, les coûts financiers et politiques inhérents à l’action sont assez faibles, surtout si on les compare aux conséquences des occupations de longue durée en Irak et en Afghanistan. De la même manière, la perception de l’engagement américain resterait limitée aux yeux de l’opinion domestique.

Néanmoins, la condition sine qua non à mener des guerres par procuration serait justement d’être dans une logique de guerre limitée. Dans ce cas en effet, les enjeux doivent être suffisamment bas pour supporter les défauts inhérents à ce mode d’action (et notamment le manque de contrôle direct sur les effets militaires et politiques). Néanmoins, l’approche technologisante ainsi que la perception biaisée de l’usage de la force (selon laquelle on peut contrôler celle-ci une fois déchaînée) qui prévalent au sein des élites américaines peut leur laisser croire que ce type d’action est utilisable y compris dans une logique plus absolue. Comme le montre la « guerre froide », l’utilisation de proxies a été envisagée contre l’arch-ennemi soviétique. Il importe cependant que l’affaire demeure discrète, notamment pour minorer les coûts en cas d’échec.

La préférence actuelle pour les proxy wars ne s’explique pas seulement par l’apparent avantage que cette stratégie recèle. Les opérations au Pakistan, au Yemen ou en Somalie (pour ne citer que les plus connues) s’expliquent également par l’articulation entre la perception du contexte par les élites (menaces de « basse intensité », contraintes budgétaires) et les préférences des acteurs bureaucratiques. Ainsi, ce mode d’action convient parfaitement aux élites militaires (notamment de l’Army) qui souhaitent éviter de nouvelles interventions durables, même si elles se sont adaptées à la pression politique en faveur des opérations de stabilisation ou de la « guerre irrégulière ». Face à ces impératifs imposés par la sphère politique, les top brass ont davantage cherché à conserver leur structure de forces que de modifier entièrement celle-ci.

De la même manière, cette stratégie convient parfaitement au style décisionnel d’Obama ainsi qu’à son approche pragmatique de la politique étrangère: il s’agit de lutter contre des menaces identifiées comme telles par le consensus au sein des élites tout en poursuivant l’objectif d’amélioration de l’image des Etats-Unis dans le monde.

2) une stratégie hasardeuse:

On peut certes penser qu’il est intéressant de mener de telles opérations, notamment dans le cadre de guerres limitées. Une telle stratégie indirecte correspond parfaitement à la nécessité de limiter les coûts liées à une implication des forces américaines, dans la lignée de la « doctrine de l’anticorps ».

Néanmoins, cette stratégie est plus problématique dès lors que l’enjeu local pour les Etats-Unis est plus élevé. En effet, si il s’agit d’empêcher la constitution d’un sanctuaire djihadiste, peu importent les effets politiques de long terme pour le territoire concerné. Tout juste admettra-t-on qu’il faut stabiliser une situation ou ne pas l’aggraver. En revanche, cette stratégie est dangereuse dans le cas d’un territoire que l’on veut maintenir sous contrôle, comme c’est le cas au Pakistan.

Car en effet, il faut tenir compte du fait que les intérêts des Etats-Unis et ceux de leurs proxies sont partagés jusqu’à un certain point: le Kenya partage avec eux l’intérêt de stabiliser le Sud de la Somalie pour des raisons sécuritaires et de sécurisation des approvisionnements énergétiques; les élites pakistanaises ne partagent avec les Etats-Unis que la nécessité de lutter contre Al-Qaïda et non celle de stabiliser l’Afghanistan. A ne pas tenir compte des divergences, ou du moins de l’inexistence d’un alignement parfait avec les intérêts des acteurs locaux, on court le risque de s’aliéner des alliés ou, pire, de se faire instrumentaliser par eux.

En d’autres termes, cette stratégie indirecte porte en son sein un des défauts de cette approche: la difficulté à maîtriser les effets politiques de l’action militaire en est largement accrue… Comme le cas de l’Afghanistan des années 1980 l’illustre parfaitement, les conséquences politiques de la guerre ne s’arrêtent pas à la défaite militaire de l’ennemi. Ouvrir la boîte de Pandore est une lourde responsabilité à prendre en compte.

Article publié sur Alliance Géostratégique.

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