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Droning on about drones (IV) – The renaissance of raids

Published on 17 August 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

As I have indicated in my previous blog, war was a political act leading to conquest or coercion. This approach to international relations would seem to be on the wane. To put is simply: people won’t stay coerced for long. The “consent of the governed” is necessary (how this consent is achieved, is a cultural and contingent matter).

First France, and then the US, attempted a strategy of conquest and coercion in Vietnam after WWII – though each for different reasons[1] (hence different follies). They both failed. Iraq in 2003 – the high-tech version of Vietnam – fared no better. Afghanistan is unlikely to provide the exception to the trend.

The Vietnam and Afghanistan conflicts share a commonality. As coercion on the ground failed, coercion from the air replaced it. In Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos it was the B 52 bombing the landscape to smithereens. Now we have the high-tech version: the drones targeting the Haqqanis and others.[2] “Smart” has replaced blanket destruction. Without opining on the value of “smart”, micro-interventions are better than carpet bombing or blanket defoliation.

A qualitative change takes place in international conflicts: as war fails, raids (re-)emerge.

Stephen HOLMES points out how drone raiding targets low to middle level combatants.[3] High yield “assets” like Osama bin Laden warrant a manned incursion. This micro-intervention is the exception. As HOLMES points out – drones seem to be more of a retributive than a preventive policy. Retribution is more for effect than effectiveness.

HOLMES’ view that drones aim at “middle to low level” targets points to an inherent weakness in the use of drones. As a counterterrorism weapon it fails to emasculate the threat: it hits foot folk rather than masterminds. As a counterinsurgency weapon if tends to antagonize the population, which should rally against the insurgence. Drones cannot build a state, but may destroy it, and turn it into a rogue state. The essential difficulty with raids is that they do not resolve the conflict, and can go on and on, unless the political process steps in, as it did in Northern Ireland. This is possibly the greatest criticism that one can levy against drones: they are a continuing irritant, distracting from the necessary national political process of “getting out of terror”.[4] Even so, the recent elections in Pakistan seem to point toward a country moving past the divisive issue of drones and focusing on getting the economy going.

Drones have further limitations. If they lower the natural protective cover that favors the militant – the forest, the impervious terrain – they are also difficult to use in an urban or semi-urban setting, where militants mingle among the populace. In a desolate setting, presence can be roughly equated with militancy. Get out of this environment, and the equation no longer applies. The urban or peri-urban setting, however, is where the action is. Even Mao could not conquer the cities, nowadays, by holding the countryside.

Possibly the greatest advantage of drones – HOLMES opines – is that their use reduces the likelihood of “mission creep” – the unintended escalation of military means from raid to full-blown war. Drones are not a strategic weapon.

The original bombing campaign in Vietnam in 1965 is a good example of such “mission creep”. The decision to bomb led to the establishment of airfields in Vietnam proper (so as better to bomb), which had to be protected by troops, and on and on. The path-dependent outcome was 500’000 boots on the ground. Limiting “mission creep”, however, is an unintended advantage from the humanitarian point of view. Before condemning drones – manned or unmanned – one should consider these “unintended” consequences.

Drones operate in zones of local conflict, smoldering or active civil war. Militants – whether terrorists or insurgents – seldom are able to go beyond local raids under their own steam. Their greatest difficulty is to parley a local success into a national (or transnational) movement which may become transformative of the political landscape of the country in which they operate, or to go global (if you belive the rhetoric of establishing a Caliphate). One way is to go “franchise” – to build a distributed network. A recent study of the administrative difficulties facing the mastermind of the al Qaeda global “franchise”[5] clearly shows the difficulties inherent in this approach. Just as in common franchising, securing consistency of “service” is difficult, yet essential. Calibrating just the right amount of violence to create the tipping point requires great skill as well as tight control. But tight control exposes the network to spying from outside.

There is a more fundamental problem with the militants’ strategy. Militants may act as match, but a match fizzles out if there is no plenty of dry kindle. How to move from resistance to revolution? On a global scale, the major effort, in this respect, was Communism, which through Comintern managed, after WWI, to mobilize autochthonous revolutionary efforts throughout Europe. The disastrous conditions after WWI yielded the ready kindle. Even under the very special conditions of a continent devastated by WWI, however, Comintern failed to bring about revolutions. Despite lavish means and plots, revolutions failed. In the end, if Comintern succeeded in its plans, this occurred through indirect means – getting Hitler to declare WWII. [6] One may note, in passing, that Osama bin Laden just about pulled it off: his successful 9/11 raid triggered war as the US response and created the potential for revolution in the Middle East. Osama aimed to humiliate the US. War as a response was an unexpected gift. In the end, Osama failed, because – rather than rise up in revolution – Islam got bogged down in fratricidal conflict.

How does one start a revolution, if war no longer is the trigger? We have a poor understanding of this phenomenon. I’ve argued that experience does it, but this is a description of the process, not one of identifying the underlying causes. Emmanuel TODD has argued that it is a demographic transition: a phenomenon, in any case, of the longue durée with contingent events as the trigger. Once the transition has been passed, revolutions are unlikely, in his view. Karl MARX saw it in the “internal contradictions of capitalism.” Indeed, I worry about increasing inequality within countries, which is masked by the fact that all boats are being lifted by the tide of the markets. Contrary to communism, however, I trust capitalism to maintain a “human face” – or mask.

One could drone on. There is no end to reflection in this field. Narrowly to focus on whether automatic or other drones fulfill the conditions of “distinction, proportionality, and military necessity” misses the richness of the issue. It is a reductive analysis that hides what should be seen.

[1] In both instances, “Communism” was the issue. The French fought for a colonial empire in Indochina. The empire was to secure the motherland from Communism. Americans saw Vietnam as the first of a series of “dominoes”, whose fall would have brought Communism to the shores of California – so VP Johnson in 1961…

[2] “US drones operated by the CIA first struck in Pakistan in July 2004. According to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), there have now been a total of 367 such strikes. These have reportedly killed between 2,541 and 3,586 people in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the seven regions including North Waziristan and South Waziristan that border Afghanistan.” Moshin HAMID (2013): Why drones don’t help. The New York Review of Books, May 23. The articles continues: if we “try to ascertain what category of person was actually killed, you will arrive instead at an estimate that some 411 to 884 civilians have died in US drone strikes in Pakistan, including 168 to 197 children.”

[3] Stephen HOLMES (2013): What’s in it for Obama? London Review of Books, XXXV, 14

[4] See e.g. Bronislaw BACZKO (1989): Comment se sortir de la terreur. Thérmidor et la Révolution. NRF, Paris.

[5] See Jacob N. SHAPIRO (2013): The business habits of highly effective terrorists. Why terror masterminds rely on micromanagement. Foreign Affairs, August 13.

[6] See e.g. Viktor SUVOROV (2008): The chief culprit. Stalin’s grand design to start WWII. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis. The author asserts that Stalin, reaching out well beyond fellow Communists, even manipulated Hitler, and eased his way to power.

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