Saturday, October 24, 2009

Predators--The High Tech Knife In The Back

The American public is either supportive of or indifferent to the use of the Predator and Reaper UAVs in the war against Islamist jihadists. But, the indication given a few weeks back by the wave of indignation over the never employed CIA program to kill the same targets up close and personal using human operatives shows the same public would not accept assassinations of the more traditional sort.

A thoughtful--and thought provoking piece from the New Yorker has been posted on Cryptome.
The issues raised by this article are important and deserve wide consideration. Of particular importance is the ethical distinctions between the usual form of killing which requires some close connection between killer and target and the new, stand-off means provided by the UAV.

Assassination, or if you prefer the more sanitary term, targeted killing, is never pleasant. No matter how much the victim may merit this most extreme of sanctions and no matter how much the trigger-puller or knife-wielder agrees with the necessity of the operation, there is always a moment, at least a brief flashing instant, of trepidation before the trigger is pulled or the knife implanted. Or, there is a time afterwards, perhaps long afterwards, after extraction or exfiltration, after debriefing, after the celebratory drink that the pang of regret probes deep and hard in the mind, the heart, the soul. It passes, but its occurrence has the salvation of proving the contact between killer and the killed was fundamentally human in nature.

Of course, it must also be remembered that the killer, again regardless of training and experience, regardless of equipment and support, must take a risk, a very real risk of somehow losing as the encounter occurs. The target may not go willingly and quickly to his death. The sheep may turn into a lion when the ultimate moment comes. Or, his security people may be more alert--or lucky--than anticipated or planned for. Or, something, some little damn thing, goes wrong. Assassination, like war itself, rarely goes perfectly as planned.

The ethical objections raised to the use of UAVs in lieu of the traditional man-in-black seem to focus on the detached, sanitary, inhuman nature of the act. Likewise, the emotional reaction against the use of the tried-and-(Usually) True methods of targeted killing seems to focus on the fact that the act is uniquely human. That it demands one person in a calculated, planned, most cold blooded way take the life of another.

It is ironic to say the least that both proponents and opponents of the UAV in the sky, Hellfires at the ready, emphasize the (in)humanity of the act of killing. The proponent argues that the distance, the remote nature of the button pusher from his target makes the action both more controllable and less risky. The opponent contends that the lack of risk and the remoteness of the killer combine to denature the act of killing from any of the virtues normally associated with men at war such as courage, initiative, determination, and the willingness to place one's life at hazard in the pursuit of national goals.

Another school of argument against the use of UAVs takes a more abstract view. Yet it is still a view anchored in the reality that warfare is a fundamentally human endeavor. This more rarefied argument holds that the lack of risk, the absence of casualties, allows, even encourages a government to use lethal means in support of policy in a hidden way which evades the normal controls and constraints on a president's ability to wage war without let or hinder on the part of the public or congress.

Proponents of the Predator way of war answer that the lack of friendly losses serves to liberate the necessary conduct of policy from artificial limitations imposed by the fear of friendly losses. The UAV is a safe way to neutralize individuals whose existence necessarily presents a clear threat to US national and strategic interests without high cost to the country either in lives or prestige.

There is much merit in this contention. The UAV option does allow the removal of obnoxious personalities without the high visibility of manned air operations or even relatively low signature special forces or black ops. A well conducted UAV strike or campaign of multiple strikes can be conducted without a high profile which automatically invests national prestige with potentially disastrous effects.

The counter is self-evident. A UAV hit is not invisible to the people on the downrange end of it. Since very few such strikes kill only people in real need of killing, the excess deaths will attract attention--and opposition. The UAV is just as likely as a manned airstrike or a misdirected artillery round to create more people hostile to the US than it removes from the game.

Another purely human based argument against the UAV and its attendant bravery of being out of range comes from the cultural reality that it is seen, particularly in tribal and similar societies, as being singularly "unmanly," and thus it rouses more contempt than it generates fear within the recipient population. The result of the bootless cruise missile attacks so beloved by the Clinton administration are illustrative of this contention. They aroused a certainty within the Islamist jihadists of Taliban and al-Qaeda that the Americans were so afraid of dying that they could be defeated by terror.

The cruise missiles were used in order to both punish and deter the Islamist jihadists. That they failed in both missions is obvious. The record to date on the Predators and Reapers is not so clear cut. At least not yet.

The strikes have killed genuine bad guys. There is no doubt but their existence has served to lessen both combat efficiency and morale of the Islamist jihadists to some extent. But, counter measures have already been devised--and posted--by the jihadists. And, the loss of even a major figure such as Baitullah Mehsud had no lasting effect on either the political will or will to combat of the Islamist jihadists.

At the same time there can be no denying that the UAV attacks have killed non-combatants. The figures are soft and contradictory, but at least three hundred civilians have been killed so far this year by Predator strikes in Pakistan. There can be no denying that these unintended deaths have brought with them a swelling of pro-Islamist jihadist sentiments which are real albeit exaggerated by the Pakistan government for its own reasons.

In short, lethal Predator attacks have a utility, a limited one, but quite real. They are a useful tool but no more than that. The same may be said of the traditional approach to carefully targeted killing. Assassination is a tool, a useful one, but limited.

From the perspective of ethics there is no real choice between the two methods. Both have a tinge of distastefulness to the ethically tender. Both reduce war to a form of single combat. In that respect both are preferable to the mass encounter of armed men.

Properly conducted, either method can allow a president to pursue necessary national and strategic interests in a low visibility way which limits but does not eliminate the possibility of invoking national prestige to an undesirable extent. The most essential difference comes in the effects upon the collective mentality of the recipient population.

If the use of UAVs has a counterproductive effect in the way the Clinton administration's cruise missile attacks demonstrated, then the bravery-of-being-out-of-range option must be eschewed no matter how gee whiz attractive it may be. After all, the purpose of assassination either up close and personal or from a distance is to have a positive effect upon the enemy, to cause him to bend to our political will.

The tool has to be matched to the task. As one does not use a sledgehammer to pound in a tack, one does not use a method which produces more enemies than it kills. That is the real criterion for assessing the use of Predators and Reapers in Pakistan or Afghanistan--or anywhere.

The crux of decision making is not which will give a sanitary distance to killing, or which will give the president more options and greater deniability. It is which will have the greater probability of bending the enemy to our political will.

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