Friday, October 25, 2013

Droning About Drones: What Else is in the Toolkit

Drones are back in the news, as Pakistan’s Prime Minister tours Washington and protests U.S. drone strikes in his country. These protests are a bit pro forma, as it is pretty clear that the U.S. is carrying out these strikes with cooperation from Pakistan.  Sharif is caught between U.S. security priorities and his own population’s preferences. He silently cooperates and publicly complains. Angela Merkel of Germany is basically finding herself in the same spot with NSA wiretapping. But without Snowden, the wiretapping may have continued below the radar, drone strikes are much harder to hide.

This raises a perennial hobbyhorse of mine, that U.S. counter-terror policy is becoming toodependent on drones. Not that I’m opposed to drones, they are obviously an invaluable tool, but right now it appears to be the only thing in our toolkit and, as they say, when you have a hammer every problem looks like a nail.

Right now, the U.S. seems free to hammer away, but if there is one lesson in life, everything has a cost or, as a better writer than me once wrote:

for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap

Remarkable advances in precision munitions, sensors, information and satellite technology and more can make us overly enamored with the ability of technology to transform the traditional laws and limits of war…. In reality, war is inevitably tragic, inefficient and uncertain.
Let’s talk about Pakistan, another obsession of mine. The people of Pakistan assume that their government is corrupt and manipulated by foreigners to grind the Pakistani people into poverty. While this is not the case, one can certainly understand how Pakistanis might come to believe this – particularly with drones operating from and within their territory.

There are good reasons for the U.S. to be using drones against the Pakistani terrorists, but drone activity is simultaneously undermining the Pakistani government. Long-term, fostering a stable not too awful Pakistani government ought to be a U.S. priority - because the whole country is just a few steps from being a giant basket-case, which brings much bigger problems than terrorism.

I recently saw Jacob Shapiro discuss his new book TheTerrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Operations. I was familiar with his work and had cited it in my own work on Lashkar-e-Taiba (which found that traditional counter-terror strategies had limited efficacy). In a nutshell, Shapiro states that terrorist groups – because they have to operate covertly – face a lot of organizational challenges to maintaining command and control. For an organization to carry out complex operations requires a lot of organization which forces the leadership to effectively exercise control through paperwork. But these mechanisms of control are a treasure trove for intelligence agencies. Further, the great fear of terrorist leaderships is losing control over their units. Al-Qaeda documents have endless disputes about money – operatives spending too much and leaders not providing enough – as well as tactics.

Sowing dissension within a group might be a useful alternative to simply killing group members. Spreading stories about corruption and other forms of impropriety could do more to reduce operational efficiency. It wouldn’t necessarily be easy.  But leaking information about a group, or spoofing their internal electronic communications should be well within the capabilities of Western intelligence agencies.  And it is probably a lot cheaper than drones.

The essence of terrorism (from a national security decision-making standpoint) is how it gets inside the decision-making cycles and makes the political leadership seem flat-footed, inept and prone to over-reaction. This approach is an opportunity to turn the tables and get inside the terrorists’ decision-making and organization and twist them up.

This strategy – to a limited extent has been used againstFARC in Colombia and others.  But it may not be appropriate in the Pakistani hinterland. Literacy is low, and running a public diplomacy campaign would be by word or mouth, which requires extensive on the ground knowledge. But that doesn’t make it impossible and it is at least worth trying.

Drones are a great tool, but let’s use some other ones as well.

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