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Call off the drones

In a piece a couple of Sundays ago by a Pakistani BBC correspondent on how the Pakistanis are caving to the Taliban, these paragraphs popped out:

In Swat, I heard the same story again and again: Before the peace deal, soldiers would stop people at checkpoints and say, “Don’t go that way, the Taliban are slitting someone’s throat.” But they wouldn’t intercede to stop the throat-slitting.

The problem, as many see it, is that there’s no alternative. Yes, the Taliban routinely place near the bottom of opinion polls, and in elections they garner less than 10 percent of the vote. But we seem to be an exhausted society, incapable of rising to this challenge.

When we look overseas for support, we are confronted by the Americans demanding that we oppose the Taliban even as U.S. drones continue to kill impoverished civilians in the remote-controlled hunt for Taliban officials and the latest al-Qaeda No. 3. There is not a single Pakistani who supports these attacks or the way they are being conducted. They have made being pro-American radioactive. And they have also made opposing the Taliban that much more difficult.

Australian military advisor David Kilcullen has a similar take on drones.

Kilcullen’s objection to the U.S. strategy isn’t moral (he doesn’t mind killing “bad guys”) or legal (most legal scholars consider “targeted killing” acceptable under the law of war because Al Qaeda and the Taliban are at war with the United States). Kilcullen’s objection is practical. He says the strikes are creating more enemies than they eliminate.

“I realize that they do damage to the Al Qaeda leadership,” he told the House Armed Services Committee. But that, he said, was not enough to justify the program. “Since 2006, we’ve killed 14 senior Al Qaeda leaders using drone strikes; in the same time period, we’ve killed 700 Pakistani civilians in the same area. The drone strikes are highly unpopular. They are deeply aggravating to the population. And they’ve given rise to a feeling of anger that coalesces the population around the extremists and leads to spikes of extremism. … The current path that we are on is leading us to loss of Pakistani government control over its own population.”

Another problem, Kilcullen says, is that “using robots from the air … looks both cowardly and weak.”

In the Pashtun tribal culture of honor and revenge, face-to-face combat is seen as brave; shooting people with missiles from 20,000 feet is not. And besides, Kilcullen says, “There are other ways to do it.”

While a Taliban tactician said the drone attacks were “effective”, which was what Max Boot keyed on, the Pashtun also said this:

He acknowledged that the Americans would have far superior forces and power this year, but was confident that the Taliban could turn this advantage on its head. “The Americans cannot take control of the villages,” he said. “In order to expel us they will have to resort to aerial bombing, and then they will have more civilian casualties.”

Translation: The drone attacks work militarily but they fail politically. Since we cannot win this War Against Militant Islamism by military means alone, the drone attacks help us win the skirmishes but help us lose the larger conflict. Kilcullen didn’t specify what those “other ways” are for taking out militant Islamists, but utilize them we should. The Taliban and al Qaeda and related groups know how to exploit the media, and the drone attacks have become propaganda opportunities. The latest from the New York Times is an example:

Chanting “Death to America” and hurling rocks, hundreds gathered Thursday in western Afghanistan to protest American airstrikes that Afghan officials and villagers said had killed many civilians, threatening to stiffen Afghan opposition to the war just as the Obama administration is sending 20,000 more troops.

The PR toothpaste is out of the media tube. It won’t matter if we find out later that no civilians died at the hands of the Americans, the damage is done. The Afghan government is undermined and the American presence is made more difficult. Does this mean that I support the complete elimination of drones? No. Close air support with ground troops remains essential to combating this insurgency*, but just as important–and perhaps more so–are good information operations. We turned the corner on IO in Iraq, but it is clear that we are lagging in Afghanistan.

And speaking of insurgencies, Malcolm Gladwell has a fascinating piece on basketball and warfare. Specifically, he tells the tale of how an inferior girls basketball team was able to defeat their opponents. This excerpt caught my eye:

David’s victory over Goliath, in the Biblical account, is held to be an anomaly. It was not. Davids win all the time. The political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft recently looked at every war fought in the past two hundred years between strong and weak combatants. The Goliaths, he found, won in 71.5 per cent of the cases. That is a remarkable fact. Arreguín-Toft was analyzing conflicts in which one side was at least ten times as powerful—in terms of armed might and population—as its opponent, and even in those lopsided contests the underdog won almost a third of the time.

In the Biblical story of David and Goliath, David initially put on a coat of mail and a brass helmet and girded himself with a sword: he prepared to wage a conventional battle of swords against Goliath. But then he stopped. “I cannot walk in these, for I am unused to it,” he said (in Robert Alter’s translation), and picked up those five smooth stones. What happened, Arreguín-Toft wondered, when the underdogs likewise acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy? He went back and re-analyzed his data. In those cases, David’s winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63.6. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, Arreguín-Toft concluded, “even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.”

I’m sure there’s a few lessons in there about insurgencies and counterinsurgencies.

* As noted in the NYT article, the civilian deaths occurred at the hands of Special Forces, and they had called in close air support. However, Special Forces doesn’t do COIN, which to me is a problem. Herschel Smith has posts here and here about how Special Forces ops have been counterproductive to our effort.

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