Monday, December 9, 2013

Are Drones Really Working? A New Model for Combating Terrorism

The Obama Administration has been under fire for their drone program not just by human rights organizations for alleged war crimes against civilians, but also from within the United States for not shifting the program to the Pentagon from the CIA as President Obama and CIA Director John Brennan had previously discussed.
     President Obama has maintained that he has kept al-Qaeda on their heels and the use of drones is the cornerstone of this achievement.  While al-Qaeda has not carried out a major successful attack on our homeland since September 2001, the group has continued to sustain a dominant presence in the world.  Even after the death of their leader Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda has been quick to promote and carry-on after major hits to their leadership.  Drones have severely disrupted terrorists' functions but one can argue that they have not deterred activity.
     Central to the anti-drone argument is the "collateral damage" the Administration is willing to accept to keep our nation safe.  Recently on Capitol Hill, POLITICO reported that three Congressmen set forth to ban what are called "signature" drone strikes.  Signature drone strikes are specific, predetermined actions within an area or region rather than specifically targeted individuals.  These actions generally constitute certain military conduct similar to jihadism.  As The Atlantic reported, "The problem with signature strikes is that they open the door to a much higher incidence of civilian casualties--and this is where the danger lies. If the United States is choosing targets based on suspicious activity or proximity to other known-terrorists, this falls short of the threshold for drone strikes set by the Obama Administration, perpetuates a disastrous U.S. image in Yemen, and serves to invigorate the ranks of those groups the United States aims to disable."
     According to POLITICO, the measure to ban signature strikes failed but sponsor Jan Schakowsky, (D-IL), stated she will keep fighting along with support from Congressmen Luis Gutierrez, (D-IL) and Ed Pastor, (D-AZ).  POLITICO went on to mention a speech President Obama gave in May and noted, "Obama defended the use of drone strikes and suggested they can often be more precise than other uses of force. He did not explicitly address 'signature' strikes."  President Obama has also lamented about civilian casualties related to drone strikes and assures that future strikes will avoid casualties.
     President Obama and many others in Washington believe the drone program has proven effective enough to continue the course.  Some even suggest ramping it up.  Last weekend, Senator Dianne Feinstein, (D-CA) and Congressman Mike Rogers, (D-MI) chairs of the Intelligence Committees in their respective houses, stated that terrorists have gained ground on us even going as far as claiming we are not any safer than we were two years ago.  Areas in which terrorists have gained ground, according to Feinstein and Rogers, are technology advances, casualties related to terrorist activity, and "winning the hearts and minds of the disenfranchised in the Middle East and Asia."  So logically, their answer is to more aggressively continue the current policy of the Administration.
     It is clear there needs to be some change in the current policy trend.  Terrorist groups thrive in areas such as Syria, Libya, and other nations where governance is weak which relates directly to terrorists winning the hearts and minds of those in the Middle East.  Syria has become a Mecca (no pun intended) for centralized terror activity given the sectarian violence and civil war.  Libya has also fallen victim to rising militant groups associated with al-Qaeda who look to capitalize on the substandard interim government.
     Al-Qaeda and other similar groups have been on the move in other nations such as Somalia, Algeria, Tunisia, and Mali to name a few.  In the past, humanitarian efforts have been utilized to rescue fragile nations but the current trend of this administration seems to be a more militaristic, zero-tolerance, hard-lined approach.  This is surprising given the recent shake up of President Obama's coveted circle of advisers and diplomats.  Recently appointed national security adviser Susan Rice and United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power have been champions of the human rights crusade yet there has been little effort from the Obama White House to reflect these positions.
     Perhaps this humanitarian effort needs to be expanded and developed to a more workable model.  The military approach has done little to deter activity and curb change in the Middle East.  While arming and training rebels may be a fairly passive military tactic, its affects have demonstrated marginal progress.
     At the root of the conflict is the issue of governance.  Terrorism thrives in environments where governance is close to nonexistent.  Afghanistan is a prime example.  The Taliban enjoyed a dominant presence until the United States and allied forces drove them out after 9/11.  A new approach toward combating terrorism should focus on fragile states and how to build them up as do discourage and dispel jihad.
     How is governance built?  What should the model be to curb growing sectarian violence and fragility in states which are known magnets for terrorist activity?  Sharon Morris, Director of the Youth and Conflict Management Office at Mercy Corps, is currently working on a new model for bringing about change in fragile states.  She recently spoke about her program and her experience in conflict resolution at the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS).  For Morris, there must be a strong relationship between conflict and development.  Current programs are not working and conventional models sought to separate state from aide.  Ms. Morris's program aims to combine the two systems of state and aide, which can be vastly challenging.  Morris noted that it is difficult to find donors for such programs because donor groups either seek aide programs or development, not both.  She used the example of Darfur, where development efforts were dismissed because Darfur was a humanitarian effort.
     Past programs were too one dimensional.  Efforts for economic development neglected to address violence.  The general feeling was that as long as economic efforts to rebuild fragile states reinvigorated economies, the violence would cease.  Ms. Morris laments this belief as purely ignorant.  Similarly, purely peace building efforts which engage different sides towards talks also ignored economic issues and violence still remained prevalent.  Recent programs have been asking the wrong questions - who should be in charge?  State Department?  The military?  Civilian efforts?  For Morris, the questions programs should be asking are what do we do and what works?  Peace building, stability, and aide should all be encompassed into a comprehensive fragile state building program.
     Morris provides an example of Somalian conflicts and violence due to deforestation associated with charcoal trade for her argument.  Peace building efforts brought business leaders and government officials to the negotiating table.  Their discussions focused on the violence related to the deforestation.  They brought about interventions to bring different occupations and job training for women and young people in different sectors in exchange for the charcoal trade which caused violence and conflict due to the deforestation.  In Middle Eastern regions where farmers were displaced in order for oil companies to drill on their land, governments sought to establish new job training programs to reintegrate these farmers back into the economy.
     Job training is immensely important to stability because it brings about economic development and creates an alternative for young people who otherwise may be swayed to join terrorist organizations, given the lack of alternatives.  Similarly, dialogue sessions are equally important because they bring forth new tools for addressing problems which may contribute to violence.  NGO's are utilizing these dialogue sessions and introducing new mediation tools to rebuild torn relationships.  In many cases, these new methods have led to tribal leaders and government officials to discuss land disputes.  In the Middle East, they have led to various Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish groups to discuss differences which mitigates sectarian violence and leads to peaceful negotiations.
     Bringing forth stability and governance is all about asking the right questions and addressing them in a comprehensive manner.  Previous models were too one dimensional and neglected important aspects of conflicts.  There must also be global initiatives and coalitions to help build stability.  Political obstacles such as the Darfur example need to be addressed.  William Garvelink of CSIS suggests the UN Security Council may be a link for connecting the dots and filling in the political gaps.  It is also important to note the g7+ is a group of nations who are trying to commit to stability.  On November 30th, 2011, 19 nations recognized their fragility and entered into a New Deal as part of the g7+ which hopes to bring political and economic stability. 
     The proposed agreement between the US and Afghanistan sets to keep about 8,000 US and NATO forces in the country to train indigenous soldiers still hangs in the balance.  Former national security adviser to President Obama Tom Donilon called President Hamid Karzi's apathy toward signing the agreement "reckless."  Karzai has been disaffected by the US for their continued drone strikes in Afghanistan and their raids on Afghan houses, which Karzai feels is a breach of sovereignty.  Recently a drone strike killed a young Afghan boy.  Despite Karzai's legitimate concerns, Afghanistan's elders in a loya jirga have insisted Karzai sign the deal.
     Drones do have a positive, non-lethal purpose for the military, however.  Drones have been used to carry out reconnaissance missions as well as to provide tactical air support for ground missions - an "eye in the sky" of sorts watching events unfold and providing last resort support if absolutely necessary.
     In addition to using drones, President Obama has also used Special Forces to combat terrorism.  In one weekend this past fall, Obama authorized Special Forces to raid a compound in Somalia to take out a high value target if the terrorist group al-Shabaab who claimed responsibility for the attack on the Westgate Mall in Kenya.  The raid was unsuccessful but a Delta Force operation the same weekend captured the long sought after Abu Anas al-Libi.  At the time, there was much speculation that President Obama may shy away from the use of drones and shift to a more tactical ground approach demonstrated through the raid in Abadabad which killed Osama bin Laden.  Obama is no fool and his consequentialist approach to foreign policy has demonstrated how he weighs the best possible options.  Given the intelligence and the topography of the regions, drone strikes were too risky for the twin raids a few months ago.  Additionally, as with the bin Laden raid, mortality confirmation would be difficult to verify with a targeted strike compared to a ground assault.  Obama has used various options to combat terrorism, however, cells continue to pop up. 
     As Ms. Morris intelligently asserted, it is important to make sure the right questions are asked to address a problem.  It does not seem as though drone strikes are having the same effects on terrorist organizations they once did.  In fact, terrorism is spreading from the Middle East all the way to Eastern Africa.  Addressing the issue of poor governance can begin to rectify the conflicts and mitigate terrorism.  It is going to be difficult to assuage hawks (including President Obama) to be weaned off strikes and begin a more humanitarian effort but governance is truly the heart and of the issue.
     While it sounds simple, there are going to be many challenges to building nations up to the level of independent stability.  Ultimately, it is up to the host country to take up the reins and commit to good governance.  If the Afghan government is not committed to taking a responsible approach to combating terrorism and continues down its historically corrupt path, the United States could be there for decades.  This is the antithesis to good governance and does not do either country any good.  One thing is certain, drones seem to be doing more harm than good and the last thing President Obama needs right now is more opposition to his programs.

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