Under Ambiguous Skies: Drones and American Uncertainty

Like most worthwhile questions of our strange, robotic, data-rich future, it’s how blurry barriers are ultimately delineated that will be most telling. Drunken Predators’ original assertion is that there are two separate debates over drone fears, and that when conflated they obscure the very different arenas in which drones operate: abroad, as military & intelligence agency assets, and domestic, where they fall under the purview of law enforcement and fall into the tradition of aerial surveillance we’re more used to from police helicopters.

Empty Wheel instead contends that it is the exact blurriness of the overlap where we’ll see both realms encroach into each other.  It won’t be through unsubtle drone enforcement on the jersey turnpike, but instead, if Empty Wheel predicts correctly, it will be a spillover from cross-border drug war applications.

As if sorting out the divide between domestic and foreign use of drones wasn’t enough, there’s the confusing nature between use of drone strikes by US military forces and by authorized covert actors. Rob Caruso highlights this well:

There’s a lot that can be read into that graph (not the least of which is a polemic on Pentagonese), but it’s in theory the functional line that separates US warfighting from cover action in the name of US national interest.

Or it would be the functional line, if that was the only drone debate Title 10/Title 50 divisions implies. Instead, as Andru E. Wall discusses, even just looking at how we use drones abroad there are four debates going on:

The Title 10-Title 50 debate is essentially a debate about the proper roles and missions of U.S. military forces and intelligence agencies. “Title 10” is used colloquially to refer to DoD and military operations, while “Title 50” refers to intelligence agencies, intelligence activities, and covert action. Concerns about appropriate roles and missions for the military and intelligence agencies, or the “Title 10-Title 50 issues” as commonly articulated, can be categorized into four broad categories: authorities, oversight, transparency, and “rice bowls.” The first two concerns,authorities and oversight, are grounded in statutes and legislative history and are the focus of this article. The second two concerns, transparency and “rice bowls,” can be quickly identified and dismissed as policy arguments rather than legitimate legal concerns.

Ranging from matters of policy to bureaucratic infighting, the debates obscure the nature of how American drones are used abroad, who is using them, and where that falls under both national and international law.

Perhaps, instead, we can discern the proper place for drones from a campaign in which they are prominently featured but conventional boots on the ground are not.  In Yemen, the US has found itself supporting the national government with drones as they actively fight against an al Qaeda that holds territory. Joshua Foust writes:

Obama followed through on his promise. He had already dramatically increased the pace of operations in Yemen, using the famed JSOC units to coordinate a series of deadly strikes against AQAP (part of a global, Obama-overseen expansion in drone strikes). Those operations continued throughout the next year. The war in Yemen had come into full force.

But what has that war actually accomplished? In this week’s public discussion of the latest underwear bomb, U.S. officials have estimated that AQAP has more than a thousand fighters in Yemen. Can we reasonably call our counterterrorism efforts there a success if the terrorist organization there has tripled at the same time?

If drones are a tool to kill enemy combatants, the net effect of their use shouldn’t be to attract more enemies under the black banners. Since the objective of the drone campaign certainly wasn’t to strengthen al Qaeda, this is a failure of strategy.

The failure of drones to resolve Yemen shouldn’t be seen as an indictment of the technology; drones themselves have proven to be just one of many payload delivery systems useful against non-state threats. If there’s a problem with our approach, it’s not that drones can’t hit targets.  It’s not even that US human intelligence is lacking (though that is a major problem, leading to both imprecision and an incredibly loose definition of “militant“.) The problem is that by focusing on the specific technology of drones, we are ignoring the debate over the goals and strategy that drones are supposed to serve.

In the same piece on Yemen, Foust addresses this:

The challenge in Yemen is, ultimately, a political one: an illegitimate government struggling with multiple resistance and rebellion movements, in addition to a terrorist movement slowly making inroads into one of them. That’s probably not a challenge that can be ultimately solved by sending in JSOC and firing a bunch of drones into the desert; it is a challenge that requires a comprehensive political, economic, and social framework for addressing the many facets of the problem. Of course, the U.S. also has diplomats in Yemen, and many policy and economic analysts back in Washington are working tirelessly on the country’s problems. But the point is that terrorist-killing drones are not the answer.

War, after all, is politics by other means. Without a clear political objective, we cannot  use force to resolve conflict, and may well end up pursuing a target-centric strategy that succeeds in killing members of al Qaeda but fails to stanch the inflow of new recruits.   While it’s important to have a clear understanding of who is operating drones and with what authority, that is secondary to having a clear political objective and a means by which the conflict can end.

Most American drone debates ignore this, using the technology instead as a stand-in or strawman for the policy objected to or the goal advanced. So long as the debate focuses on a specific category of surveillance and delivery system, it will skirt around the heart of the issue: how are we going to actually win these wars, and are drones going to help us do it? And if we’re not talking about conflicts with political solutions, if this is the grey area of law enforcement and military assistance abroad, should we be pursuing it the way we fight our wars?*

If we want to figure out end points for our drone wars, we need to be debating policies and objectives, not tech. And if we want to remove drones from the many grey areas under which they currently operate, we can do that without awkward charts and vague inferences. It will just take serious thought and action by our national legislature. If we can, we’ll avoid waiting for a cross-border DEA-sanctioned drone strike that will let precedent decide instead.  Ball’s in your court, Congress.


*Over on my quick-takes foreign policy tumblr, I’ve been engaged in a conversation about how the Global War on Terror resembles the War on Drugs in it’s interdiction & law enforcement goals, and how this strategy leads to using military assets abroad without a clear point at which the conflict is resolved. It is not a terribly reassuring picture of future success.


About kdatherton

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2 Responses to Under Ambiguous Skies: Drones and American Uncertainty

  1. Pingback: » What to Read this Weekend….. THE KABUL CABLE کابل تلگرام

  2. Pingback: Overblown Fears and Exaggerated Capabilities | Plastic Manzikert

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