There are weeks when the Geek has regretted his lifelong interest in matters of war, diplomacy, and the shadow lands of covert/clandestine affairs. The past month of so has been one of those periods. It is not that the world has suddenly been infected by a fulminating virus of peace and love. Quite the contrary. Rather the intellectual languor has been promoted by the combination of events having unfolded in a drearily predictable factor and the lack of imagination exhibited by the Deep Thinkers and Bold Actors on all sides of all the many conflicts, armed and otherwise.
A useful example of both predictability and the lack of imagination is presented by the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki. The energetic dismantlement of the New Mexican borne cleric is both welcome and long overdue. The fact that he was accompanied on his trip to paradise by the one time resident of North Carolina, Samir Khan, rendered the event all the more pleasurable.
Anyone with even the most cursory knowledge of the UAV campaign in the FATA and the building of a base convenient to Yemen from which Agency operated Predators might make their lethal flights well understood that Awlaki's days were numbered, and that the number was small. The violent death of the genius of Internet (and personal) radicalization became as certain as sunrise when he was placed on the "kill or capture" list last year. Despite the inevitable wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth by the ACLU and other advocates of human rights above the dictates of real life, and regardless of the equally certain condemnations of "extrajudicial execution" already resounding around the world, the Obama administration by it's listing of the imam let it be known that the governing considerations were those of war--a war in which Awlaki had voluntarily enlisted and waged with ever growing success.
With the failure a few months ago to capture Awlaki by a force of Yemeni personnel backed by USSOCOM assets, the only option was killing, and the only practical tool was provided by a Predator launched Hellfire. The only time limits were imposed by the requirements for constructing an operational base and gaining from both Yemeni and national technical means sufficient actionable intelligence. When fractured open source reports out of Yemen a couple of weeks ago indicated a diminishing of drone traffic over the area of Yemen in which Awlaki's tribe holds sway with a ramping up over territory to the country's north, it became evident that the endgame for the preacher was underway.
The removal of Awlaki and Khan from the board is good. But, it is drearily predictable that it is not much more than that. The strike in no way lessens the nature or effectiveness of the threat posed by al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP). Had the reported inclusion of AQAP's chief bombmaker in the body count not been later retracted, the Hellfire would have well and truly hurt the group. As it is, the most that can be said is the killing has had a marginal beneficial impact by reducing AQAP's capacity to use Internet radicalization with the same effect in the future that it has in the past.
Neither the killings nor the knee trembling on the part of human and civil rights lawyers and groups will change the nature of the ongoing war between advocates of violent political Islam and the civilized states and people of the world. The bad guys will keep on being bad actors. The administration and any future one as well will use whatever means are necessary within the broad limits of proportionality to defend the country and its allies against attacks of whatsoever nature.
If there is any alteration in the future, it will be in the direction of placing increased reliance upon UAVs and other means of long range, low signature, low cost of commitment war fighting. The use of special forces teams and UAVs has been both tested and proven in the harsh laboratory of the FATA as well as the one next door in Pakistan. Both capabilities can be of great assistance in countering the potential threats resident in AQAP, al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM.) Both may be required urgently against the latter threat if AQIM demonstrates greater capability as the result of having tapped into the arms stream flowing from the looted arsenals of Libya.
A greater use of UAVs will provoke an enormous consternation on the part of the usual suspects--the NGOs involved with human and legal rights as well as the apologists for countries which wish ill to the US but cannot match the American technological capacities. There will be more and more political strange bedfellows both domestic and international as the US leans more heavily upon the impersonal, remotely controlled deliverers of death from above. There will be demands beyond count for new conventions to bar such devices as Predator. There will be calls for a moratorium on the use of these infernal machines until the law can catch up with the new technologies.
The only reply to those who believe the Predator and its tribe are inhuman and inhumane is,"Phooey!" It is far better for a single Awlaki to die downrange than to see real war with its effects, unpredictable in detail but certain to include hundreds if not thousands of dead--most of whom will be civilians.
The Predators will continue to fly over Libya even long after NATO's warplanes have packed up and gone home. They will be overhead to observe not only the intended targets of weapons being smuggled or saboteurs preparing but also the probable agony of protracted internal war as the joy of liberation turns into the pain of political disagreements of a very fundamental nature.
Libya (and its neighbors, Tunisia and Egypt) is also drearily predictable. Much of the reason for this observation is found in a remark made by a Salifist Tunisian, 23 years old and holder of a degree in engineering who, when interviewed, opined, "We Salifists are the majority. Democracy is rule of the majority. Why should we allow the minority (secular oriented Tunisians as well as their non-Salifist fellow countrymen) dictate how we should live?"
By this question as well as similar content expressions by legions of Egyptians, Libyans, Tunisians, and their supporters in the West, the young man demonstrated just why the "Arab Spring" will turn into a Winter, a most harsh and bitter Winter. The promoters of democracy show they well understand democracy in and of itself but fail to see the necessary corollary: Democracy is the tyranny of the majority.
Unless properly constrained within the firm dikes of a representational republic and held in check by dams formed by both division of powers and an independent judicial system, democracy is tyranny pure and simple in which the rights of the minorities are either non-existent or tenuous at best. In the rush to embrace democracy without the time necessary to build the essential dikes and dams, no citizen is secure, no rights and liberties are permanent, nothing is safe from the fads and fantasies of public opinion and the winds generated by demagogues.
Libya, unlike Egypt or Tunisia, but quite like Yemen and Afghanistan or other Islamic states, has the additional burden of tribalism. This is not to say tribalism is bad. It isn't. Tribal identity is predominant in several states to the point that they are not real, integrated nation-states but rather collections of tribes sharing a flag.
The attempt to force tribal based societies and polities to pretend they are Western nation-states is doomed to fail. Don't believe? Take a look at Somalia. It is not a failed state because it never was a real state. Rather it was an artifact created by Western diplomats who used the only model making sense to them--the nation-state. The same is true of Afghanistan. Much of the inherent instability there results from ignoring the tribal nature of the human terrain in order to pretend we can make it into a Western style state.
When looking at Libya or Yemen or, to a lesser extent, Syria, the same dynamic is present--tribes forced to act as if their members owed a higher loyalty to the state. The example of Iraq is instructive here. As long as we outsiders insist on democracy and the nation-state as the touchstone of legitimacy, we are helping to doom the targets to a long, harsh Winter.
Even if tribalism of the usual sort is absent as it is in Egypt and Tunisia, there is a functional equivalent at work. That is the existence of differing interpretations of Islam and thus the relation of the faith to the state. The ground truth is Islam carries the seeds of its own failure as a foundation of state. This actuality has been shown in both Iraq and Afghanistan. People may think they want to live in a Shariah based system until they are actually in one. The proponents of austere Islam have and will find that their vision of life is totally unattractive to most people. Then, they must (as do the austere Islamists of Iran) rely upon naked force to oppress their way to continued power.
Put together, the two forms of tribalism, traditional and religious, along with unchecked democracy point to a long, bitter Winter of pronounced discontents. This, in turn, implies a high possibility of protracted or episodic internal war in all its manifold and evil forms. Such is the result of ill-advised exercises in "nation-building" or regime change or support of the "peoples' will.
Coming full circle, the several downsides of either intervention or unthinking support are circumvented completely by using Predators or even special forces units. These approaches to defending against hostile intents and acts minimize the probability of unintended consequences. Predators do not engage in "nation-building," neither do they change regimes. They kill people in serious need of being killed.
To this end, the killing of Awlaki is one important small straw in the very stiff winds of the coming Arab Winter.