« 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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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

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