‘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.