Targeted killings: what are the alternatives?

Posted: January 3, 2011 in Kings of War
Tags: , , , , , ,

My good friend David was kind enough to hook me up with a guest slot at the prestigious Kings of War blog which is run out of the King’s College, London War Studies department. It explores the issue of Predator strike attacks (which I have touched on before) and looks at what alternatives there are open to policymakers. I am hoping to hear reactions or thoughts on this and please feel free through the contacts page or in the comments.

Raffaello Pantucci on targeted killings: what are the alternatives?

by DAVID UCKO on 3 JANUARY 2011 · 2 COMMENTS

Raffaello Pantucci, a dear friend of mine, has penned a guest post for Kings of War on targeted killings (TK). The post is a lengthy response to aprevious guest post on KoW, by Adam Stahl. Below, Raff hardnosedly (39th use of this word online) asks what the alternatives are to the current use of drone strikes. He seeks to move away from the discussion as to whether their use constitutes a strategy or a tactic, to consider instead how we have gotten to the situation we are now in, and what the options may be for the future. Engaging with this question, he makes the case for recasting the rhetoric surrounding the use of drone strikes, to take us back to talking and thinking about ‘war’, with all the gravitas implied by that term. Yet as Raff concludes, all may not be fair in war, and even in such a context, the continued use of drone strikes would require a serious investment in information operations so as to mitigate their potentially counter-productive side-effects.

My own take on this question is that the very logic presented by Raff in paragraph 3 is too compelling to the powers that be to prompt any real change, even in rhetoric. Changes surrounding the use of drones will be incremental and largely symbolic until such a day as it is demonstrated, in no uncertain terms, that they not only radicalise but that such radicalisation directly leads to terrorist attacks at home. And it is uncertain to me whether such a causality will ever be sufficiently stark to defame this ‘quick and easy’ fix to the problem of terrorism. That is not to say that change is not necessary. So, Raff, take it away…


Hand wringing over the strategic utility or definition of targeted killings is all very well and good, but if we are concerned with drone strikes (the current most prominent TKs), then a sensible idea would be to start to try to formulate some alternatives. After all, drone strikes have become the US default strategy in AfPak for a while now, and one could see how it might start to take on a similar role in Yemen or Somalia if, as appears to be the case, the perceived externally oriented threat continues to grow.
First of all, let us think about how we got to this situation. The rationale behind the deployment of drones in ever-increasing numbers was an awareness that key members of terrorist organisations or insurgent networks were operating in areas from where, for either a lack of forces or of local support, allied forces were unable to easily go and get them. Not wanting a political mess or a lot of dead soldiers, pilotless drones seem a safe option by which enemies could be dispatched without causing a messy political backlash at home. This is clearly not a perfect solution: aside from regular official complaints from the Pakistani government, there is nowthe case of a man who is suing the US government for $500 million for killing his brother and son in a predator strike in Waziristan on New Year’s Eve 2009 (a case that led indirectly to the unmasking of the CIA station chief in Islamabad). It has also angered some in Europe who are appalled at the notion of the US killing its citizens, with impunity, on the other side of the globe. A German MP in particular is making a lot of noise about a case where a predator strike may have killed a German citizen, and similar issues have been raised in the UK in the past and may again surface if the true identities of Abu Bakr and Mansoor Ahmed are uncovered. The US has its own domestic problem with the targeting of Anwar al-Awlaki, whose case was taken up by the ACLU. Finally, it is unclear whether this solution is resulting in too many civilians deaths and possibly inflaming the very rage that fuels the enemies later targeted in these attacks.

Clearly, the political solution that has been reached is not a perfect one, but for the leadership in Washington (whose finger is, in this case, on the trigger), the problems are manageable: they manifest themselves on the other side of the globe and not amongst a community with a vote in the US. There are some attempts to placate the discontents, but for the most they remain ignored by policymakers, who conclude that as long as domestic terrorist attacks are staved off and the body count for friendly soldiers stays relatively low, the public won’t really question government policy abroad.

What other solutions might there be?

One alternative is the deployment of units of soldiers to go snatch these individuals once they have been located, to whisk them away to places where they could be tried and convicted for their crimes. But this presents a number of problems. First, there is the likely death of friendlies, as the sought-after individuals can be expected to resist arrest. It is equally likely that these individuals would be retrieved from areas where civilians and hostiles are hard to distinguish. Any such action would likely hand a propaganda bonanza to the targeted enemy, who will loudly present any casualties resulting from the action as civilian victims (a claim that may be difficult to refute).

And even when the wanted individual is sequestered, what then? Interrogation and then presumably a trial leading to incarceration. Problematically, these interventions would often target culprits before they commit a readily convictable terrorist offense. Meanwhile, to gather evidence along with the culprit would add to an already demanding mission for the snatch team, particularly in an environment likely to be hostile. All of this would also cost money and time: court cases in the UK against groups of plotters linked to al Qaeda go on for years and cost tens of millions of pounds. If individuals are to be taken back to Europe or North America for trial, consider the costs of doing so at the frequency at which drone attacks are currently being launched. If these trials are instead held in, or near theatre, it is still going to be very expensive, and also involve additional security costs to guarantee the trial space.

Finally, even if a case was effectively carried out and a sentence passed, there is the question of long-term incarceration. Jails, presumably high-security detention facilities like Supermax, would rapidly fill up and need replacements. Then the possibility has to be considered that some of these people would live out their sentences and need releasing back into society: how would that work? Would it involve sending them back to where they came from? A lawyer may make the case that upon release a convict be naturalised as a citizens and granted the requisite rights and freedoms. We have already seen how problematic this can be with the US government’s attempt to close down Guantanamo.

The other solution is to go the other way and to ramp up strikes in the face of political opposition, on the assumption that this will be a short-term expedient to a temporary problem. This is the path currently pursued, but it is equally riven with problems. Aside from the political issues highlighted above, it is unclear whether it will resolve the situation in some permanent way. Predator drones have been deployed for over half a decade now and while they clearly instill fear in our enemies, they have not gotten rid of them, as evidenced by the continued need for drone strikes in theatre. If this tactic were a strategy by which to resolve the problem, then presumably at some point we would have run out of targets. Instead, it may be that despite, or because of these drone strikes, our enemy’s numbers are growing (something that may in turn explain their increased use and provide a worrying answer to Donald Rumsfeld’s question as to whether terrorists are being killed quicker than they are being produced).

So is there a third way?

A third way would need to maintain low casualties amongst friendlies and civilians while also capturing bad guys in a sanitised way that nonetheless takes them out of circulation. It would also need some way of addressing the political problems that plague the use of this tactic.

Maybe the solution lies in using the drones as eyes in the sky rather than as killers hovering above. Use the intelligence gathered from the drones to track enemies until they reach a location where they can be snatched by friendlies, and then placed before courts of law. The idea would be to have almost total coverage over a restricted space where the enemy was known to operate, and to grab them when they venture beyond this space – presumably on their way to carry out terrorist acts. This would keep down the amount of friendlies in danger’s way, along with the level of collateral damage.

There are a number of problems with this solution, however: first, it would require a considerable number of drones and of intelligence operators to monitor these drones. Secondly, it is hard to ensure complete cover. Intelligence is never perfect and a failure to focus on the right region or hot-spot may lead to a terrorist attack. Insurgents and terrorists are by their nature adaptive, and eventually they would figure out ways to avoid the watchers in the sky (doubtlessly they are already working on this and may already have made some headway). And none of this addresses the question of what to do once the suspects are in custody – if they are extradited to the US or a European country, we return to the problems of trials and incarcerations.

Another alternative is to focus instead on the killing capacity of the drones. Switch the weaponry on the drones; turn them into flying sniper rifles rather than flying missile carriers (I have to concede that this concept was first suggested to me by KoW blogger Tim Stevens). This would save on the collateral damage and on the number of friendlies in the line of danger. Yet aside from the technical aspects (of which I am no expert), what of the question of culpability and guilt, and the political issue of whether it is acceptable to launch assassination missions across the globe? Given the difficulties of ascertaining and proving whether it was a civilian or a terrorist who was killed, the narrative of civilians caught in the crossfire would continue. The Taliban have repeatedly shown how effective their information operations can be, and you need only have a brief conversation with people in the UK to see how effectively this message of civilian casualties spreads, often without a shred of evidence either way.

Maybe the solution lies in producing information packs to be published or released immediately after any strike, detailing who was targeted and why, including the evidence against them and of having hit the right target. This is the nightmare suggestion for intelligence or security professionals who would blanch at the prospect of sharing their jealously cherished intelligence (at least until Wikileaks gets their hands on it!). More seriously, it is of course likely that someone with a knowing eye would be able to identify informants from amongst the information released, something that would endanger their lives and probably stop the flow of useful information. It would also require the admission of local collusion in the strikes, on the part of host governments, which may complicate the political situation on the ground. The Wikileaks cables from Yemen, which show the government’s collusion with the US in masquerading drone attacks, is something that would put unsustainable pressure on any Western government found in a similar position.

Maybe the solution is much simpler: the conflict needs to be recast as a ‘war’. People die in wars, usually for a rationale that a majority of the population accepts, or which it needs to be persuaded of. NATO went to Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11 to get those who carried out that heinous act, in a move that most supported (in the West at least). Let us refocus the rhetoric and language on this fact and that the drone war is an extension of this conflict. This is not to advocate the conflict’s indefinite continuance, but let us phrase the debate about strikes within that context and continue the discussion along these lines. This framework would also force a serious public conversation on the war in Afghanistan, rather than a debate about a tactic. It would furthermore provide a better context for understanding the path that the West is now on: slowly withdrawing troops from Afghanistan while continuing with drone strikes against set targets.

Having refocused the rhetoric, the US should establish a high-level committee that includes at least one human-rights judge, a known independent (ideally foreign, UN-employed) judge or prosecutor, and another from the nation in which the strikes are taking place (probably therefore Pakistani). This committee should be given access to the targeting package information for each drone killing and should publish an annual report verifying and detailing what has taken place the year before in a fashion accessible to the public (and scrubbed of sensitive intelligence information).

There are problems in this solution: the Pakistanis (or whoever) would be admitting publicly to something they continue to condemn in rhetoric, and the recasting of drones and the Afghan conflict in the language of ‘war’ may once again inflame matters à la ‘Clash of Civilizations’. But, frankly, both of these complications are already in place. No one really believes the Pakistanis’ statements (and thanks to Wikileaks we can now see how the leadership in Yemen is also speaking out of one side of its mouth in public and another in private), and al Qaeda and the Taliban already think that they are at war (and at least for the Taliban, one they are winning). The only people who might get infuriated would be anti-war types at home, but then their anger tends to be a guaranteed byproduct of any military activity abroad. As for the argument about drone strikes deepening radicalisation: governments would need to conduct major information operations to ensure the committee’s findings are published and disseminated effectively. And clearly, drones and their impact is not the sole radicalising agent at play.

The question and permissibility of drones and targeted killings as a weapon in combat is one that the Israeli Supreme Court has wrestled with before. I would recommend reading its findings for a good debate about the issues at hand. Hopefully, all of this will serve to stimulate some more thinking on these questions, and I look forward to hopefully engaging further in this discussion on- or off-line.

Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), his writing can be found here.

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Comments
  1. […] My original letter was much longer, but the distilled point is still there. I have touched on this subject before, and would like to return with a much bigger piece at some point but am a bit […]

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