We’ve got drones and SOF teams. Who should we go after?

‘We’ve got drones and SOF teams. Who should we go after?’

This is how the target selection process sounds to me when I read about it. My semi-secret fear is that this might be quite close to how this process actually works. The Global War on Terror, the shadow war, the overseas contingency operation – whatever you want to call it, I’ve long worried that its reach and the place of importance it is given are out of proportion to any threat posed by Al Qaeda or any similar group, and I’ve long feared that the way we go about ‘countering’ terrorism may in fact cause more problems than it solves, possibly by orders of magnitude. I am no insider. I don’t see the process. I would like to think that more care is put into these decisions than it seems from the outside. But from here, from the outside, it seems like no matter how many times – through decades of experience – we see the second and third order effects, the collateral damage, the side effects of our actions, the people making the decisions are not really concerning themselves with taking time to consider how the benefits balance out against the potential unintended consequences and long-term effects. And it’s not just about doing things we maybe shouldn’t be doing; it’s also about failing to do things we maybe should be doing.

Then when I read an article like this one by Kimberly Dozier (and I strongly recommend reading that), it reads very cart-before-horse to me, like ‘Who are we going after with these drones and SOF guys?’ and not ‘This AQ leader is a terrible threat. What are we going to do about that?’ I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have contingency plans in place for how to deal with potential real threats to U.S. security, but it seems like more than that. I fear that maybe we use these tactics just because we can, that because we have drones and incredibly skilled and versatile SOF teams and such, we just look for people to use them on. That scares me because it implies a casual attitude toward the many forms of potential collateral damage, scant consideration of long term effects (and therefore the absence of a robust long term guiding strategy), meaning finally, an approach to national security that is not actually optimized to keep our nation secure.

The drones aren’t the issue any more than any other tool or tactic is – they are a tool, and can be a very valuable one – but if we’re looking around for people to kill with them rather than using them only in service of a true strategy or to counter a clear threat that has arisen, then we’re doing it wrong, and if we’re doing it wrong – and this is true even if you are concerned only with American interests and are fully indifferent to the collateral damage done to and within local populations in the areas of operation – we risk having to pay a harsh price in five years, or ten, or twenty, when the right things we didn’t do and the collateral effects of the things we did do comes back to haunt us. 

But please tell me I’m wrong. I’ll feel a lot better if I am.

Bonus reading: h/t to Rob Caruso for linking up three great recommendations for current reading on operations (which yes, very much do consist of more than just drones): “Offshoring CT: Towards a Dissection” – Dan Trombly for Abu Muqawama; “The Vickers Doctrine” – Robert Caruso at Rocky Shoals; and “U.S. Foreign Policy and Contested Sovereignty” – Micah Zenko for CFR. All good reads that bear on various aspects of this subject, none quite addresses the question of what kind of big-picture, long-term strategy guides these operations, although Caruso comes closest to getting into this in that his (very interesting) post offers guidance on structure and prioritization in operations going forward.

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9 Responses to We’ve got drones and SOF teams. Who should we go after?

  1. Chris says:

    Sounds like the Madeline Albright effect. Back in 1993 she asked Colin Powell “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” when discussing options for Kosovo. Powell later said that at “I thought I would have an aneuryism” when she had that apparently cavalier attitude about the use of force. I can’t help but wonder if this is the result of having a large, mobile, effective fighting force that we can deploy without people noticing it, or if it is a feeling that not using those resources makes officials think they should be doing more to fight terrorists because they have the capability to do so.

  2. TwShiloh says:

    I suspect this is what happens when you mistake activity for achievement. That, in turn, is (again, my guess here) driven by a need to demonstrate relevance and secure a place at the fiscal (and institutional) trough. You can just about picture the bullets on the PowerPoint slide:
    o Threat list increased by 20% over past fiscal year
    o Request for drone strikes up 35%

    o Recommend more money/promotions/power/etc

    We still haven’t developed an adequate way to evaluate what we’re doing in the counter-terrorism field and while some of that is due to the very difficult nature of the task, I can’t help feeling that another component is that existing interests just don’t want to upset the status quo in unpredictable ways that might result in a lose of influence/power. So…it’s easier to cram old school metrics we learned from the Cold War (how many Soviet bombers/ICBMs on station translates to how many militants/bombmakers are in FATA) and not upset the career paths and institutional structures that are already in place.

  3. Ingrid says:

    Classic quote applies, as overused as it may be: “When you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”

  4. Dave Kermode says:

    I have lived in your country .I am an Aussie. I am pro America but it seems to me you sometimes go into conflicts full of steam -but don’t handle a long sustained haul well. I am sure some recent events bear that out. I think your national cred would be greater if you stuck a challenge out to the end occasionally. You could have been successful in Vietnam except for political squeamishness-or lack of resolve.
    Thankyou .

    • BK Price says:

      Dave, glad you could visit and wanted to let you know that I am pro Aussie as well. Your folks have been kind enough to join us in many of adventures and have often stood by our side to the end in many cases.

      Unfortunately, I think your comment may have missed the point. Vietnam lasted 10 years. The GWOT has lasted nearly 12 years now. I’m not sure you can make the case that the US is unable to sustain the long haul. What we can’t do is seem to figure out how to end these things decisively.

      Vietnam would not have turned out any differently had we stayed another 10 years. The problem wasn’t outlasing our opponents, it was setting up the South Vietnamese to defend themselves effectively against the North Vietnamese threat. See the Korean pennisula, we are still there, 60 years later, but the burden of defense is largely on the ROK. This is probably how Vietnam *should* have ended…with US troops still stationed along the DMZ today and a much more conventionally capable ARVN than what we left there in 1973. (Arguments about the despicable regime in South Vietnam should see the regimes we supported in South Korea…they are doing much better now and such things take time and engagement…hard to engage when you abandon them, same theory used to help move China along.)

      So the question isn’t, are we going to stay in Iraq or Afghanistan long enough but rather, are we setting them up to survive on their own (or with less direct support from us)? Neither of these countries need to worry much about a conventional assault from a foreign power, so our focus on training their forces for CT/COIN is much more appropriate than it was for the ARVN.

      As for the GWOT, what you are seeing is a transition to what will become the steady-state. Again, not an issue of whether we will stay engaged long enough or not but rather, can we stay ahead of the threat. And the tactics criticized in this article are FAR more sustainable than any alternative. COIN (aside from being inappropriate for this fight) is far too resource intensive (in every possible metric) to be employed over the long haul.

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  6. Tyler says:

    This is a good commentary on the use of drones and also the GWoT in general. I think that we might be jumping to conclusions if we say “well now who do we go after?” with these tools. Al-Qaeda is such a massive multinational network that I’m sure there are plenty of targets that we don’t even know about – low-level militants, etc. This raises the question of whether we should use the requisite resources and incur the consequences of a drone strike against “any old militant;” so the person in command – I’m not sure at what rank the “to fire or not to fire” decision is made, as I’m sure it can vary – may have to consider the opportunity cost of a particular strike. Maybe killing militant 1 in a strike while he’s clearly doing bad-guy stuff would kill one or two militants, but a bit of restraint could account for intelligence gains that far outweigh the usefulness of killing him immediately.

    I agree with the author here, that the drones shouldn’t be the go-to just because we can use them. I also think that Ingrid’s quote is spot-on, and a solid admonishment. We must consider the long-term consequences of each individual strike, as far as is reasonable to do. This is especially true when considering the tendency that “killing militants” has to create/recruit more militants. If the effect of the strike is that 1 bad guy is killed, then this seems like something the public could quickly perceive as insidious, overkill, unnecessary, etc – and the attack could very easily end up recruiting several determined young militants, especially if the bad guy taken out in the strike was popular around town.

    This is where the restraint could help tons – if we hold off, maybe intercept militant 1′s phone calls and find out about his big meeting with the bomb-vest makers in his village, instead of hitting him while he’s cleaning his AK-47 with a friend (or worse, alone) – maybe we could have a much better opportunity for a strategic strike that actually deals a blow to the operational structure of the organization. Allowing the situation to develop, within reason, could lead to big payoffs. I think *this* is what we must be careful about – making sure we’re not too quick to pull the trigger once we have a confirmed bad guy in our sights.


    • BK Price says:

      This argument stems largely from the assumption that all militants are equal. And that is quite simply not the case. Whacking one or two low level fighters does result in the recruitment of more low level fighters. And that is bad. If they can replace those losses fasther than I can kill them, I’m making things worse. But that’s not the case here.

      Whacking one or two high level AQ leadership or facilitator types may result in the recruitment of more militants to the cause but those are not replacements. Those are foot soldiers who need someone to tell them where to go to train, how to get there, pay them the money necessary to make the travel, etc., etc. No facilitator, no money, training, or direction. Similarly, once they get trained and are ready to fight, their ability to coordinate effectively with other cells, to strike against targets of actual worth, etc., is determined by their leadership. No leadership and they are still dangerous, but they are mostly just dangerous to the local area. Bad for our forces in Afghanistan and to the local security forces in AFPAK, not so much to the US.

      So asking “who do we go after next?” Is really the point. I want to neutralize the leadership as much as possible (and having the guy above you and the guys to your left and right killed off makes you considerablly less willing to communicate or meet with your people which makes you far less effective as leader) and I want to monitor the facilitators the best I can. So yes, we try not to kill the guys who give us good intel but we do kill the ones who most effective at their jobs. And killing one or two of these guys is far superior to killing 100s of foot soldiers and another 20 civilians as collateral damage.

      What we are seeing is the development of the strategy that will serve as an enduring process. AQ is, to some extent, splintering which does not mean the threat is going away but that it less centralized and more focused on local issues. So it is unlikely that we will get to a point, ever, where we can say, “done.” Instead, this will be the way we live day to day. Surgical strikes supported by intel and SOF to eliminate one or two terrorist targets at a time. Just enough force to keep them from being effective but very low resource commitment on our part.

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