Terror, Strategy, and Living Under Drones

Drones and the future of warfare are perennial interest of mine. My previous writing on drones was from the perspective of American politics and military strategy.  In brief, I argued that the armed drone has proceeded in concert with bureaucratic institutions of the ‘kill list’, from the context of democratic governance is dangerous because the institutions involved are free of external oversight, and above all, that this policy of ‘war by assassination’ developed without any form of public deliberation or participation.

What I did not write about was the consequences of drones on the ground, because I did not have that data, and would not presume to speak for the perspectives of people who I don’t understand. A recent report, Living Under Drones, by the Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic of Stanford Law School (Stanford Clinic) and the Global Justice Clinic at New York University School of Law (NYU Clinic), has provided that data, in the form of 130 interviews with Pakistani residents of the areas targeted by drones. I do not agree with all of the premises and conclusions of the report, but they have rendered an invaluable service by giving voice to an otherwise silenced population. I’d like to take a moment to discuss what this report reveals about the strategy of the drone war, and how that strategy can be improved.

The official word on the drone program, from counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan up to President Obama himself, is that drones are legal, ethical, and above all, precise. Strikes are conducted only on the best intelligence, on verified targets, in a manner that avoids civilian casualties. The metaphor of the Global War on Terror is cancer; terrorist cells must be cut out of the nation before they metastasize, and this can be done without harming the integrity of the body politic.

The three strikes described in Living Under Drones paints a very different picture. The stories differ in the details, but a common thread emerges as an attack on what the administration claims to be terrorist activity is described by locals as just daily life, including political council meetings and travel. The survivors, either just outside the blast radius of the relatives of the decease, describe the shock of the explosion, picking through ruined buildings for body parts, and trying to rebuild what remains. What through the lens of a drone looks like a terrorist, is to people in Waziristan a father, brother, son, economic breadwinner, friend, or local elder. Every death reverberates through the social fabric, individuals who are only weakly tied to legitimate targets in Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or the Haqqani network.

Those who live under drones describe the experience as one of fear amplified by uncertainty and helplessness into terror. “In the words of one interviewee: ‘God knows whether they’ll strike us again or not. But they’re always surveying us, they’re always over us, and you never know when they’re going to strike and attack” (Living Under Drones pg. 81).  In practice, drones are terror weapons, with unanticipated psychological effects beyond their lethal impact. It is one thing for a democracy to avoid a debate on whether or not certain ‘bad people’ can and should be killed; it is another thing entirely to avoid that debate about whether a civilian population should be terrorized in pursuit of that policy.

These opposing perspectives on drones matter, because perspectives inform policy, which informs outcomes.  If drones are truly surgical weapons, than the matter at hand becomes identifying the relevant jihadist targets, and eliminating enough of them to shatter their organizations, or doing it rapidly enough to outpace their ability to regenerate, or simply staying at it at long enough that they go away. Unfortunately, regardless of its (arguable) successes in Waziristan, the proliferation of jihadist groups in Yemen, Libya, and Syria shows that years of this kind of ‘political surgery’ are not leading to victory. Attrition is the last refuge of the defeated strategist.

Drawing from Unrestricted Warfare, which presents the novel and profitable proposal “that the new principles of war are no longer 'using armed force to compel the enemy to submit to one's will,' but rather are 'using all means, including armed force or non-armed force, military and non-military, and lethal and non-lethal means to compel the enemy to accept one's interests'", the problems of drones as a terror weapon become clear.  The object of the drone campaign is not to surgically excise the Jihad, but to make the population turn against them on the belief that fighting Al Qaeda is a better option than allowing them to exist among them, thereby inviting the drones.

This strategy is riddled with weaknesses and little better than attrition. One strategic perspective views the Global War on Terror as one front in the struggle between the New World Order and the New World Disorder. Vis a vis futurist, sci-fi author, and guru Bruce Sterling and Professor Thomas Barnett of the Naval War College, there are places where the networks are open, the official economy encompasses pretty much everything, and rule of law applies, (if you’re reading this, you almost certainly live in one), and there are other places where the infrastructure is poor, power is held by small networks of personal charisma and authority, and the major economic activity is extortion, smuggling, and drugs. Terrorists, by and large, come from places like this, because they encourage the development of tightly-linked groups willing to kill. These groups don’t have the organizational ability to project power much beyond their neighborhood, but in rare circumstances they can hijack the infrastructure of the New World Order (airliners and subways, for example) to carry out mass attacks.

The point is that breaking up any particularly group is irrelevant, because the pervasive lack of economic opportunity and broader social meaning mean that places like these spawn terrorists, revolutionaries, and criminals in the same way that a garbage pile spawns flies. The isolation and provincialism of these places is hard to overstate, as interviews with three would-be Pakistani suicide bombers reveals:

“The common thread between the lives of these youths was their complete isolation from rest of the Pakistan and from the world at large. The lack of access to TV, Internet, and formal education meant they were almost completely oblivious to such massive events as 9/11, and as such they were unaware of where and what exactly the United States was. One of the boys mentioned that there was only one TV in their entire neighborhood, and even that one didn't work half of the time. Their only access to information was the radio, which has for years been dominated by the jihadists who were using the name of Islam to mobilize the people.”

If ultimate victory in this war is to be achieved by spreading the New World Order into the dark corners of the world, it is unlikely that terrorizing the population into mass anxiety, killing local leaders, and blowing up what infrastructure there is, is a fruitful step towards that goal.

I’m going to be cynical here, and say that regardless of its legality, ethics, or mass public opposition, the drone war is going to continue. In a tactical sense, armed drones are simply too good at killing terrorists for them to be abandoned as a technology. How then, might the strategy be recovered?

Foucault, in his classic Discipline and Punish, wrote about the Panopticon as both a physical structure and as a theory linking surveillance, punishment, and discipline. For Foucault, the power of the panopiticon’s architecture was that the possibility of being observed and punished at any time required the inmates to act in accordance to the wishes of the overseer at all times. When the inmates fully internalized the values of the overseer, and could be trusted to behave as he wished without active involvement, they had become ‘disciplined’. In this framework, the strategic aim of the Global War on Terror is extending American discipline in regards to terrorists to local populations around the world.

The theory of the panopticon is relatively simply, but its application is anything but.  Terrorist networks use intelligence tradecraft to avoid detection, making them elusive targets for surveillance. And from the perspective of civilians on the ground, the drone strikes appear random, leading to learned helplessness rather than an anti-terrorist discipline. I believe that to be effective, each drone strike must be linked to a clear American policy and ideology; and to an opportunity to for potential change behaviors and allegiances before being attacked. The drone war would become slower, more deliberative, and above all, more transparent.

Is this proposal ideal? Absolutely not. I’m not even sure if it’s a good idea. But what I am sure of is that the current strategies of the drone war as I understand them are not strategies that are capable of winning, and that endurance in pursuit of defeat is no virtue.


  1. http://agilekeys.wordpress.com/2012/10/20/drone-warfare-and-a-politics-of-veils/

    my response

  2. Thanks to Cameron for a great response. The question at the end about new forms of society is the big, unanswerable one. In this clash of very divergent goals, we cannot know if the tactics of drones or tradecraft and propaganda will win out. On the other hand, Al Qaeda's strategic plan to set up an Islamic caliphate across the Arab world is about as realistic as the Bush administration axiom that "we will be greeted like liberators." That aside, as an ideology, it is not unreasonable in context.

    To look behind the veil, the question of values, and particularly the strength of Western values is spot on. I think that Jihadist ideologies are one way of rejecting global capitalism. While I disagree vehemently with all forms of fundamentalist ideology, they have pretty simple answers to existential questions. You are put on this planet to serve God, you are the descendant of proud tradition, and if you join us, you get to hang out with a band of awesome guerrilla warriors. By contrast, Western values have become rather vague and amorphous. From the humanistic triumph of the Enlightenment, we've decayed to the market-driven principles that you will never be as cool as the people on TV, and that if it more efficient for the economy to render you surplus, well, that's just the breaks of the invisible hand.

    If we believed, really believed in our hearts, that our values were unquestionably superior, we'd had no problem sending out our best and brightest to fight and die to advance them (see Burden, White Man's). But we don't, because our principles have been deconstructed and used to advance the careers of hucksters and frauds, because our highest ambitions conceal corruption and crime, and because it is easier to put on better circuses than it is to make a better world.

    The drone war as it stands is merely pest control, eliminating the most egregious and stupid enemies of the New World Order, abet pest control with a very high human toll.

  3. Anonymous23.2.13

    Droones are not a solution to our problems but a joint problem in itself.