The Changing Conflict in Pakistan, and Targeted Killing

Adam Entous, military affairs correspondent for Reuters, has authored, along with several colleagues, an outstanding, smart, balanced, and well-reported story on the evolution of drone warfare and targeted killing.  A lot of reporting effort went into this story – this is not just an instance of a reporter being offered a little nugget of inside information and running with it.  I was interviewed at some length for the legal aspects of the story, and if my experience is any indication of the rest of the reporting, it is very well reported.  My Opinio Juris co-blogger Julian Ku picked up the story first over at OJ, “How the White House came to love the drone.”  But for my part, here at Volokh, I want to comment on a couple of the other issues  in the story – concentrating not on the legal issues, but instead on the strategic evolution.

First, the Reuters story undertakes a very interesting analysis of the kinds and numbers of fighters being killed, to the conclusion that drone warfare in Pakistan is increasingly focused on taking out relatively low-level fighters, and in much greater numbers.  And notwithstanding a wealth of important quotations and analysis of different legal and policy matters, the biggest takeaway of the story is this:

In the rugged mountains of western Pakistan, missiles launched by unmanned Predator or Reaper drones have become so commonplace that some U.S. officials liken them to modern-day “cannon fire.” And they are no longer aimed solely at “high-value” targets like Mehsud, according to U.S. counterterrorism and defense officials.

Under a secret directive first issued by former President George W. Bush and continued by Barack Obama, the CIA has broadly expanded the “target set” for drone strikes. As a result, what is still officially classified as a covert campaign on Pakistan’s side of the border with Afghanistan has in many ways morphed into a parallel conventional war, several experts say.

Which is to say, the conflict in Pakistan has evolved to the point that, although the Pakistani government does not say so publicly, and neither does the US, one can say either that the conventional war in AfPak has widened to include the Pakistan Taliban or else that a secondary conventional conflict has opened up within the primary one.  Recall that two or three years ago, Pakistan was battling, or not, depending on the period, its own Taliban – but we were not directly involved, except in support of their fight.  Things have clearly broadened to the point that we and the Pakistani government are battling the Pakistan Taliban.  And, noting the Times Square bomber, the Pakistani Taliban have been planning for some time now how to bring the battle to us.

This, I would suggest, is the most important reason why the Reuters analysis found a greater emphasis on killing low level soldiers.  This is no longer covert, or not so covert, targeted killings of high value individuals, but a more discretely aimed part of the overt conventional war.  Cannon fire, but using vastly more precise weaponry – rather than something outside of the regular military operations, this is now part of the overt war, using much more precise weapons.  It is a weapon being used to harass the enemy’s rear – an unusual weapon in a quite usual battlefield role.

Second, an implication of this – not noted in the Reuters story, but important for the strategic picture – is that this evolution in the role of the drones in Pakistan, along with the evolution of who we are fighting, signals a shift in the nature of the fight in Pakistan, as far as the US is concerned, from “counterterrorism” to “counterinsurgency.”  It is no longer “targeted killing” in the original sense of counterterrorism.  The difference is that in using drones in the hands of the CIA to undertake strikes against high value targets, we had finally found a weapon by which to attack the terrorists, and the terrorist leadership, directly.  Without having to seize the terrain and engage in on-the-ground counterinsurgency through control of the population, in order to deprive the terrorist guerrillas of ground to go to.

That was the original attraction of the Obama campaign to drones, after all – fight terrorism without having to fight an actual war on the ground.  There are reasons to doubt that this would have worked – in an important sense, it is the latest incarnation of the ability of strategic air power to win a war, only this time in the form not of massive air power, but massively discrete air power.  In the event, the strategic deal worked out involved some of both – surge on the ground in Afghanistan, and increased use of drones in Pakistan.

In the course of the last year or so, however, that mutually complimenting relationship has shifted as the Pakistan Taliban has joined the ranks of directly fighting the US, and Pakistan concluding that it has to fight them much more aggressively.  The Pakistani stance might shift, of course.  But in Pakistan, the Pakistani army is engaged in the on-the-ground counterinsurgency, while the US undertakes the complimentary counterterrorism and, increasingly, a very particular form of air power.

Third, the policy question – not legal question, I stress, because in my view the situation is lawful as it stands – is whether it makes sense for the CIA to be conducting this parallel war.  In general principle, in my view, and I suspect in the view of many in the Agency as well as in DOD, the best arrangement is for the military to handle things that are looking more and more overt – and the CIA, together with special ops, handles covert operations.  However, everything is not equal, given that the Pakistani government is not willing to say that the US military is operating in its territory.  In that case, however, note how much the Reuters story details of ways in which the Pakistani military and government actually back the strikes – but prefers the fig leaf of the CIA conducting the operations.

That could change quickly given the volatility of the politics there, but the usual journalistic meme, both about the attitude of the government and the attitude, for that matter, of people in the tribal zones, is quite inconsistent with the Reuters account.  I’d add, fwiw as someone who is not in the region, just today, in conversation with a Pakistani military intelligence officer, I was told substantially what Reuters reported.

Fourth, the Reuters article takes up the blowback issue.  Meaning, these operations are creating ill-will among the population, and creating new terrorists and new fighters.  The story gives a number of interviews that challenge that view, at least today, in both Pakistani officialdom and even among those in the tribal areas.  The record it offers is mixed – but very far from the dominant Jane Mayer narrative that has so carried the media meme for the last few months.  As an analytic matter, however, I find the constant, reflexive invocation of blowback to be unpersuasive:

  • It is easy to assert, and difficult to disprove – but also to prove.  Stripping out alternative explanations for this or that is not so easy.
  • It will always be true at least in a trivial sense – so it is always true to say, always okay to quote in an article, but that does not tell you whether it really means anything.
  • If one were to take blowback as seriously as the current media meme does, no policy would ever go anywhere; we would have a serious overtendency to do nothing, for fear of blowback.  As a consideration, sure it always warrants bringing up – but given as a reason for not acting, well, you’d better have really good evidence for not just people saying it, but for it actually undermining plans of attack, not just a logical possibility, however well reasoned.  It is a recipe for inaction, which might sometimes be right, but is not such a great presumption in war.  What was it Andrew Exum called for in one of the recent articles in which he was quoted on blowback – ‘we need more studies’ or something like that.  Is that really so?  As a substitute for not using something, like drones, that on pretty much every other metric is doing very well indeed?
  • Those who reflexively invoke blowback when, for example, the Times Square bomber cites drone strikes – weirdly seem not also to note that journalists and Western analysts are not the only ones capable of thinking up the blowback thesis.  It might be true.  It might also be true – indeed, how could it not be true – that the Taliban have figured out that this would be a good thing to say – certainly it sows more Western handwringing than, say, “I did it for God and country.”  The Times Square bomber says, drones – the media says, see, blowback – well how do you know it is blowback or just playing you?
  • Blowback is most important in counterinsurgency warfare, where you are out among the civilian population, and its goodwill matters – this, note, is the strategic frame of many of the military blowback critics – but it matters far less if the operations are counterterrorism.  It is also true that this conflict is mixing the two of them – and unsurprisingly, the commanders in Afghanistan are a lot more cautious about counterterrorism drone strikes.  But it is not clear that there is much of a blowback relationship, even assuming that it is a major concern, between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Fourth, the article has a lot of useful discussion on the back and forth over civilian collateral damage.  Senior CIA officials, presumably from Panetta on down, seem to have been doing a reasonably good job of convincing fairly skeptical, and not especially agency-friendly, journalists at the Times and the Post that the CIA’s version of collateral damage is closer to the truth than the estimates that have come out of the advocacy NGOs.  I have also been struck that the oversight committees have not been leaking things that would suggest that its members think otherwise; perhaps the Obama effect can keep dissatisfied Democrats in line and Republicans would not defect on national security principle, but that has not typically stopped leaks in the past.  I have no special inside information and perhaps the many hundreds being killed that the NGOs have claimed is the truth, but I would urge people to be cautious in so concluding, particularly on a general assumption that if it is the CIA saying so, it must be false.

Fifth and finally, although strictly one has to look on a case by case basis in order to undertake consideration of the proportionality issue, even if one takes the NGO figures as gospel truth, the totals, taken on a rough intuition, do not look obviously terrible or even close.  On a time line of the past twenty years, this is marvelous improvement in targeting; taken on a century scale, this is the end of warfare as known in the past, and frankly praise the lord.  Even looked at in the context of fighting and weaponry today, these are figures that for warfare would be taken in most contexts to be an occasion for congratulation.  I would hope that NGOs, the ICRC in particular, would think long and hard about its mission and relation to weapons over the long term before moving to join the chorus of condemnation – or, worse, hanging back while the swarm attacks, a thousand paper cuts against the development of any new technologies that gradually, and over long periods of time, improve targeting.

So:  Dear ICRC, an organization for which I have immense respect and even affection:   You don’t have to live for the gratification of immediate headlines the way other human rights organizations do, so please think about this and what it looks like on a long term trajectory.  It would be, frankly, a very weird thing if the Japanese developed robots that can take care of elderly people and perform surgery and figure out who is who, etc., but no one dared apply this to warfare for fear of getting hit with a lawsuit under the Alien Tort Statute in the United States or a trip to the International Criminal Court, and so we developed whole new technologies of sensors and precision for everything but the battlefield.

If one’s view is that there is no moral or legal or any other basis for fighting in AfPak, then you are entitled to your dismay; under practically any other circumstance, the objection comes far too cheap.  The development of the concussion weapons, for example, that the Reuters piece describes – with very little shrapnel and killing by concussion inside a vehicle – well, I’m sorry, but this a good thing in the history of warfare, and it would be nice if that were recognized.  In some alternative universe, perhaps, the lions will lie down with the lambs, but the alternative in our universe is that the Pakistani army levels the place with artillery.

Last year, a Pakistani army officer described to me the operation in the Swot valley, his hometown, with tears in his eyes – and convinced in his grief that the US had a secret harmless nerve gas that it could have used instead to neutralize the fighters and spare the population, but it refused to use it.  Well, at this moment, the closest thing to that harmless nerve gas is actually predator drones.  And if the Reuters story is correct, it would appear that numbers of people in Pakistan are recognizing that privately, if not publicly.