Drone wars and unintended consequences

A disturbing report in the New York Times that highlights the dilemma of Obama’s campaign of drone strikes and assassinations in Central Asia.

The article doesn’t make clear the exact dynamics, but a general process of convergence seems to be taking place between the global and local radicals. Because the insurgencies over there seem to be sharing a loose network of expertise, resources and money, it is difficult to isolate our military violence to the global jihadists, and localised jihadists are motivated to cooperate because of the force and pressure being applied:

Have the stepped-up attacks in Pakistan — notably the Predator drone strikes — actually made Americans less safe? Have they had the perverse consequence of driving lesser insurgencies to think of targeting Times Square and American airliners, not just Kabul and Islamabad? In short, are they inspiring more attacks on America than they prevent?

It is a hard question.

At the time of Mr. Obama’s strategy review, the logic seemed straightforward. Only Al Qaeda had the ambitions and reach to leap the ocean and take the war to America’s skies and streets. In contrast, most of the Taliban and other militant groups were regarded as fragmented, regional insurgencies whose goals stuck close to the territory their tribal ancestors have fought over for centuries.

Six months and a few attempted bombings later, including the near-miss in New York last weekend, nothing looks quite that simple. As commanders remind each other, in all wars the enemy gets a vote, too. Increasingly, it looks like these enemies have voted to combine talents, if not forces. Last week, a senior American intelligence official was saying that the many varieties of insurgents now make up a “witches’ brew” of forces, sharing money handlers, communications experts and, most important in recent times, bomb makers.

Yes, each group still has a separate identity and goal, but those fine distinctions seem less relevant than ever.

The notion that the various groups are at least thinking alike worries Bruce Riedel, who a year ago was a co-author of President Obama’s first review of strategy in the region. “There are two separate movements converging here,” said Mr. Riedel, a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “The ideology of global jihad has been bought into by more and more militants, even guys who never thought much about the broader world. And that is disturbing, because it is a force multiplier for Al Qaeda.”

Mr. Riedel also notes, “The pressure we’ve put on them in the past year has also drawn them together, meaning that the network of alliances is getting stronger, not weaker.” So what seemed like a mission being narrowed by Mr. Obama, focusing on Al Qaeda and its closest associates (which included the Pakistani Taliban), “now seems like a lot broader mission than it did a year ago.”

If this is right, its not so easy to separate global and local jihad – particularly by fighting a remote-controlled offensive from the skies and from pilots and decision-makers thousands of miles away.

On the other hand, the predator kills seem to be making it much harder to coordinate and prepare the terrorism that truly scares us, the mass casualty, complex plots that actually succeed. If we were to lower or cancel the assassinations, on the basis that it would encourage the various movements to split apart, this would presumably come with a price – an environment where it is easier to operate.

This is part of the wider dilemma of the war on terror. Military campaigns abroad do inflame nationalism, resentment and resistance, and do energise the propaganda of the enemy, they do play a part in motivating attempted attacks on our soil, but they also make day-to-day life harder and limit and damage the limited stock of skilled operators who mean us harm. Angry young people may be more likely to be radicalised and attack us ‘over here’, but they are also more likely to fail.

Whereas if we rein in our killings, the temperature may go down but the ability to operate will probably improve. Imagining what it might be like in the shoes of a hardened radical in Pakistan, the prospect of being killed or disappearing every day would make it harder to organise the struggle.

As usual, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and fighting or not fighting them ‘over there’ in some capacity will bring dangers of its own. An occasional failed, low-tech attack in America would seem to be an acceptable price for the overall reduction of AQ to a third or fourth-order nuisance, so that the prospects of another 9/11 are far more remote ten years on.

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