Signature Strikes are as Old as War

Arianna Huffington recently wrote on the Huffington Post about the Obama Administration’s use of so-called “signature strikes” by drones in Pakistan and elsewhere. Underlying much of her criticism is a basic assumption that signature strikes are a new form of targeting that is more pernicious than the more targeted strikes that we are used to. This assumption is perfectly true, if your sense of history goes back no more than about decade.

Signature Strikes are the norm, not the exception

The truth is that what we now call “signature strikes” used to just be called “targeting the enemy.” The practice is in fact so old that it is impossible to trace its origins. In fact, some of the earliest accounts of armed conflict speak about the use of “signatures” or qualities that allow a soldier or government agent to identify an unknown person as a probable member of an enemy group. The Old Testament is replete with examples, including David’s use of foreskins to identify Philistines, and the Gileadites’ use of the word “shibboleth” to identify and kill the Ephraimites.

In fact, knowing the identity of your enemy with any precision was extraordinarily rare until the last ten years. Granted, targeted killing of one sort or another (even leaving aside clear cases of political assassination) has existed for time immemorial as well, but was definitely not the norm. It was instead an unusual undertaking, and attempts rarely led to success. For eons, the standard approach to warfare has been to assemble together a large group of men, few of whom are expected to know any of the enemy by name (with the exception of their king or president), and effectively set them loose on a collection of the enemy population. In later more “civilized” times, these armed groups would mostly only attack one another, although this was never a perfectly uniform practice. These soldiers, whether professionals or conscripts, would not identify an enemy by name, position, or other individualized characteristic. It was always enough that they “look like the enemy.”

This is what has always been expected of soldiers, and to a great extent, still is. We now have more rigorous standards of conduct, laws to mitigate civilian damage done during an attack on enemy forces, and clearly spelled out rules of engagement. Even still, in my four years in US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, including deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, I was shown a picture of an individual enemy that we planned to kill or capture on a handful of occasions. The rest of the time we were just expected to use the same standard as is used for pornography: you know it when you see it. In other words, we were expected to use the ground combat equivalent of signature strikes. Warfare is just not that individualistic, even today.

Signature strikes may not be new, but our new techniques are helping reduce civilian harm, despite the “evidence”

Still, the US military and intelligence community is becoming impressively proficient at identifying and locating individual members of the enemy. Despite the much publicized (but mostly classified) report recently published by the Center for Naval Analysis’ Larry Lewis, most reliable evidence says that drones, even when used for signature strikes, are much more discriminant and precise, killing or injuring fewer civilians per strike, and far fewer per militant killed. Much of the evidence to the contrary is in fact gained from anonymous sources linked to the Pakistani military or to the militants themselves. Given the sourcing–the enemy and their patrons–it is a little surprising that the claimed number of civilian deaths is in fact so low, even including signature strikes. Maybe these sources are willing to double the number of civilian casualties, but tripling it seems a bridge too far (except for a stalwart few who transparently either fudge their numbers or need to retake middle school pre-algebra).

As a case in point, even the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, who appears at first to be an honest broker of information on drone strikes, upon deeper investigation, are highly biased. They reported yesterday that the number of civilian deaths due to drone strikes in Pakistan has been underreported by 81. They describe this as a “high civilian death toll,” but for a campaign waged over the course of nine years, this is actually an extremely low death toll. I challenge anyone to find another military campaign that lasted nine years yet killed fewer than 45 civilians per year (according to their numbers). However, even these numbers are suspect, as can be seen from their source document, a leaked Pakistani summary of drone strike casualties. Setting aside the arithmetic problems (4+5=8? Apparently, in Pakistan. See line 78), several problems indicate unreliability.

First, the number of civilians killed is not always as clear as the Bureau would have it. In the vast majority of “civilian” casualty cases, the number of civilians are not specified, and is indictated only by inclusion of the word “civilian” in the remarks column. It is not clear whether this means all dead and wounded were civilians or whether one or some of them were. However, in other cases, the number is given, or the remarks indicate that they were “all civilians.”

Second, and more damning, only two references were made to militants out of the nearly 750 dead in 84 attacks. However, one entry refers to “miscreants,” and several others list foreigners as among the dead. This raises the suspicion that the number of militants killed is actually under-reported, and thus the possibility that some listed as civilians are in fact militants.

Third, and worst of all for the reliability of this information, it is apparently obtained secondhand and from afar. Several of the entries indicate that the information is “reported” or “yet to be received.” Local elders and even local political administrations are often pro-Taliban or otherwise compromised (e.g. by bribery which constitutes the majority of their income).

The hard truth is that coming to even a good, ball-parked number of civilian dead is extremely difficult. But what is clear is that the US drone campaign, even when using signature strikes, has a remarkably low rate of civilian casualties when compared to other available options, given their advanced optics, long loiter times, and precision munitions. Those who advocate against drones tend to focus on the technology, when what they are actually opposed to is the use of force in general. This is a laudable sentiment, but these same folks never seem to be willing to offer workable alternatives.

The truth is that drones are here to stay, because they are an extremely useful, discriminating weapon system. Given that we are involved in a protracted conflict with an enemy that hides among the civilian population, our drones and drone pilots are doing a remarkable job. Of course, as I will describe in a later post, relying solely on drones to win this conflict for us is in the end counterproductive. More on that soon.

 Paul W. Taylor, Senior Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Drone strike kills 16 militants in Pakistan–for the last time?

Late on Tuesday, July 2, a massive drone strike in northwestern Pakistan killed 16 militants reported by local officials to be associated with the Haqqani network. This was the first drone strike in Pakistan since June 7th, and only the second since the election of Pakistan’s new Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif.

The Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the attack:

“These strikes are a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Pakistan has repeatedly emphasized the importance of bringing an immediate end to drone strikes.”

Pakistan’s civilian government has long protested these strikes as a violation of their sovereignty, even while their military coordinates with the US to a clear airspace for the drones. Few in Pakistan vocally support the drone strikes, despite the fact that some officials will quietly admit that they have been an effective means of dealing with their chronic militant problem. Despite this quiet acknowledgement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ statement asserted that:

“The government of Pakistan has consistently maintained that drone strikes are counterproductive, entail loss of innocent civilian lives and have human rights and humanitarian implications. These drone strikes have a negative impact on the mutual desire of both countries to forge a cordial and cooperative relationship and to ensure peace and stability in the region.”

The last part is definitely true, and will be increasingly true in the future. In fact, at least one analyst believes that the strike will be taken as a personal affront to newly-elected Prime Minister Sharif, since it was conducted while he was out of country on a state visit to China, and may in fact be one of the last drone strikes in Pakistan.

This is not entirely far-fetched, given the rather remarkable decline in drone strikes in Pakistan over the course of the past few years, as I have written about previously, despite initial fears on the left that Obama was going to drastically increase the use of drone strikes. Although, according to data from the New America Foundation, he did initially increase the use of drones to attack militants in Pakistan, quadrupling the number of strikes over his first two years (and incidentally, halving the number of civilian casualties over the same period).

However, there is reason to disbelieve that this declining rate of strikes signals the end of the program. Probably the best indicator is that the drop in the number of drone strikes does not appear to be correlated to any decrease in the number of leaders these strikes have taken out of the fight. This may just indicate that the strikes are more selective, and that we are getting better at locating and targeting the leadership.

Selectivity of US drone strikes in Pakistan, as measured by the number of leaders killed per strike.

Selectivity of US drone strikes in Pakistan, as measured by the number of leaders killed per strike.

Interestingly, it is not necessarily our own enemies that we have been targeting. It is relatively well-known that the first drone strike in Pakistan, which killed Taliban leader Nek Mohammad, was selected at the specific request of the Pakistani military, in order to rid them of an enemy of the Pakistani state. And while the Afghan Taliban have received aid and shelter from Pakistan, their sister organization, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has targeted Pakistani government forces and installations with brutal efficiency. They have even captured territory startling close to Pakistan’s capitol, Islamabad. Pakistan seems unable or unwilling to crush this movement. The US has been working on it for them, however. Of the five Taliban leaders killed in US drone strikes in 2013, four have been leaders of TTP. Simultaneously, the number of Afghan Taliban leaders killed in drone strikes has been on the decline.

Number of leaders killed in US drone strikes in Pakistan per year.

Number of leaders killed in US drone strikes in Pakistan per year.

With all of the back-room dealing that has occurred between various parts of the Pakistani and US governments, is entirely possible that a deal has been struck with the Pakistani military that will allow the US to continue to use drones to target its own enemy, so long as it also takes out Pakistan’s, as well.

There is also reason to believe that the US will continue to use drones in Pakistan with or without its consent. The continuing instability in rural Pakistan and the inability of the Pakistani government to reduce the violence emanating from the region, which is much more substantial than that caused by drones, as well as its inability or unwillingness to limit the export of terrorism and insurgency from its territory cannot simply be ignored. It is not a bumblebee that will go away if left to its own devices. And until some alternate method of limiting the Taliban’s and Al Qaeda’s ability to use Pakistan’s territory to train and equip  their operatives and send them out against America and its allies, the US government will have little choice but to employ drones, even if in a more limited and selective fashion.

Paul W. Taylor, Senior Fellow
Center for Policy & Research

Pakistani Taliban will not attend peace talks, citing drone strike

After the recent drone strike in Pakistan’s North Waziristan region,  the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik e  Taliban Pakistan, or TTP) initially refuted claims that their number two commander and chief military strategist, Wali ur-Rehman, had been killed. The TTP have since admitted that Rehman was indeed killed in the strike, and cite that strike as the reason for refusing to attend the scheduled peace talks with the Pakistani government.

The Taliban’s spokesman blamed Pakistan’s civilian government for failing to put a stop to the CIA-run strikes:

“We announce an end to our peace overtures because we believe that the Pakistani government is equally involved in the drone attack,”

It has always been reasonably clear that the talks were not going to lead to much anyway, and it is likely that this simply presented the Taliban an excuse to pull out while appearing to take the high road. However, reports indicate that if anyone in the Pakistani Taliban was open to serious peace talks, it was probably Rehman.

Some here at home have also criticized the strike, since they see it as a breach of President Obama’s newly announced changes in our drone policy, first because it was run by the CIA rather than the DoD, and second because there is no indication that Rehman posed an imminent threat of the type Obama’s new policy would require for targeted killing. However, according to Foreign Policy’s Situation Report, the adoption of the new rules is not a simple matter of flipping a switch somewhere in the Oval Office:

“there is no timeline when it comes to migrating drone operations to the DOD. ‘You don’t move it overnight,” said the former senior official.’ “

Paul W. Taylor, Senior Fellow
Center for Policy & Research

CIA whistleblower/leaker John Kiriakou foils government plot to retaliate against him

John Kiriakou, the former CIA clandestine officer who was recently sent to Loretto Federal Corrections Institute on charges of leaking the identity of a fellow CIA officer, has written a letter to the public about his experiences in prison. Kiriakou maintains that his prosecution for the leak was in retaliation for his whistleblowing on the Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (or EITs) which most now consider to be torture.

While the letter is a very interesting view into life in a federal prison, the event that takes pride of place is an incident in which the prison’s internal security personnel attempted to trick Kiriakou into getting into a fight with another inmate. However, it would seem that tricking a former operative of the US Clandestine Service is not as easy as they thought.

According to Kiriakou, the Special Investigative Service (or SIS), which investigates crimes or other breaches at the prison, pulled Kiriakou into their office to tell him that another inmate was the uncle of the Times Square Bomber, and had received orders from Pakistan to kill Kiriakou. Instead of being intimidated, Kiriakou, who had by this time made friends with just about everyone in the prison, simply walked up to the guy and talked to him. As it turns out, the SIS had told the other inmate (who had nothing to do with the Times Square Bomber) that Washington had ordered Kiriakou to kill him. Kiriakou postulates that the purpose of this plot was to get them to fight and thus produce an excuse to send them both to solitary.

Needless to say, if this story is true, it is should be a scandal. Even if the SIS were operating entirely independently and hatched this half-baked plot on their own, the use of a federal office to not only incite violence, but also to endanger a former CIA officer would be an unforgivable breach of the public trust. So far, little has been reported on this, or anything else related to Kiriakou’s  time in prison.

Paul W. Taylor, Senior Fellow
Center for Policy & Research

Ben Emmerson talks drones with Lawfare

UN Special Rapportuer for Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism Ben Emmerson spoke with Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes and Ritika Singh about his study of US drone policy, focused primarily on our operations in Pakistan (podcast available from Lawfare: see episode 31). I have expressed some skepticism of his objectivity in past posts (here and here), but also some optimism (here). Having just listened to Emmerson’s 40 minute discussion, I now have a great deal of respect for the man’s commitment to objectivity.

In the discussion Emmerson admits to having initially approached the subject from not only a human rights perspective, but also with the preconception that the US was not at war at all. His views on these issues have become both tempered by his investigation and discussions with officials in Pakistan and the US, and also quite nuanced. Once example of this can be found in his explanation of his comments earlier this year in which he is broadly quoted as saying that Pakistan has not consented to US drones attacks on its soil. His elaboration of how he came to this position is quite interesting, and well worth listening to (it starts at minute 23).

Far from simply accepting the assertions of Pakistan’s civilan officials that they have repeatedly protested against drone strikes, Emmerson starts his analysis from the passage of a law restricting consent to the use of drones by officials of the Pakistani government. Since the US and the international community are interested in promoting democracy and the rule of law, Emmerson argues, such a restriction, passed by the elected representatives of the Pakistani people should set the basis of consent. To allow back-room deals to trump a duly enacted law would be anathema to the promotion of democracy.

Emmerson then preempted the ever-realist Wittes’ rebuttal that the democratic government of Pakistan is not the effective government with regard to matters of national security and foreign affairs by pointing out that while Pakistan is clearly a flawed democracy, it is also by the same token a fragile democracy that should be nurtured rather than subverted in the name of expedience.

Another point made by Emmerson which displays his objectivity and thoughtfulness relates to the perception that drones could unduly high civilian casualties. Emmerson cited  UNAMA statistics kept over the last decade on civilian casualties from various kinds of ordinance. And while that data clearly shows that drone attacks in Afghanistan tend to cause substantially fewer civilian casualties than attacks by fixed-wing air craft, the perception of the the majority of Afghans is the exact opposite: that drones are prone to killing innocents. He therefore wonders (without concluding) whether drone warfare is in the long run more harmful than other means of achieving similar ends.

Other points warrant mention as well, but in all, I am very impressed with Ben Emmersion’s intellectual honesty and objectivity. I now truly look forward to his report, due to be produced in September.

Paul W. Taylor, Senior Fellow
Center for Policy & Research

 

Court of Appeals upholds denial of FOIA request seeking Bin Laden photos

The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia yesterday decided to uphold a district court ruling that the US did not have to release photos of taken during and after the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The photos were sought by a conservative watchdog group, Judicial Watch, under a Freedom of Information Act request. The court found, however, that since the photos were used to conduct facial recognition to verify the body as Bin Laden, releasing the photos could endanger intelligence methods.

While I do not dispute that ruling, I am happy about the outcome on another ground altogether. John Bennett, director of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, described the photos in a declaration to the court as “quite graphic, as they depict the fatal bullet wound to and other similarly gruesome images of his corpse.” And according to the Appeals Court,

“As the district court rightly concluded, however, the CIA’s declarations give reason to believe that releasing images of American military personnel burying the founder and leader of al-Qaida could cause exceptionally grave harm.”

To my mind, this decision validates an important reason for the Freedom of Information Act: informational transparency. Congress did not pass it to give the media free access to salacious material to boost their ratings.

As citizens of an open democracy, Americans have a right to information about their government and its activities. But where the government has a legitimate reason for withholding a document, even if it is on grounds such as diplomatic “embarrassment,” as happened in the Bradley Manning Wikileaks case, a FOIA request should as a matter of policy only be granted if there is a legitimate informational purpose. Judicial Watch could identify no cognizable information contained in the pictures that was not already publicly known. Thus, releasing the photos would not serve FOIA’s purpose of informational transparency, only the media’s purpose of generating buzz.

A vastly undervalued aspect of protecting our rights as citizens of an open society is to avoid abusing those rights. One example of the dangers that fear of unwarranted disclosure can cause can be found in the case of the CIA interrogation tapes. Fearing that these tapes may at some point become public, the CIA destroyed them. The courts yesterday thus did us a favor in protecting the government from unnecessary disclosure of gruesome photos, helping to ensuring that the government can do its job without fear that anything and everything will wind up on Fox, MSNBC, and Al Jazeera.

Paul W. Taylor, Senior Fellow
Center for Policy & Research

 

In spite of ongoing debate, drone strikes are declining

While the debate over the legality of the US drone campaign in various places around the world rages on, Scott Shane of the New York Times pointed out yesterday that drone strikes worldwide are actually on the decline. They report that the number of strikes in Pakistan, where drones are most actively used, actually peaked back in 2010. In Yemen, where drone strikes served to decapitate the leadership of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the number spiked dramatically in 2012, but has since dropped off again. Meanwhile, no strikes have been reported in Somalia for more than a year.

The cause of this decline, according to NYT sources, include the diminishing list of high-level Al Qaeda targets, which they attribute to the success of the drone program, as well as other factors like weather and diplomatic concerns. However, Shane suggests that another factor may be the growing appreciation of the costs of the program. This is certainly a concern, especially as Al Qaeda uses the strikes as a propaganda tool and, thanks to the Urdu language press, many Pakistanis report to live in fear of drones (despite never having seen one). I, myself, have long argued that the drone program is legitimate and beneficial to US interests, with the caveat that we find a way to transition to law enforcement methods  within a reasonable amount of time. The only problem is figuring out how to do that in places like rural Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

Hopefully, this is a topic that President Obama may address national security speech scheduled to take place tomorrow at the National Defense University. Unfortunately, while I have a lot of faith in President Obama on many fronts, I would be surprised if he goes beyond a mere recitation of the drone strike numbers, and actually proposes a way out.

Paul W. Taylor, Senior Fellow
Center for Policy & Research

Speedy trial chickens may be coming home to roost

In a previous post, I mentioned the possibility of speedy trial problems arising if terrorism suspects are treated differently than other violent criminals. And we are now seeing signs that this may be true.

The defense for Guantanamo Bay prisoner Ahmed Gilani, who is so far the only GTMO detainee to be tried in Federal court rather than in a Military Tribunal, is now seeking to have his conviction overturned due to his long detention prior to trial (see also, here). Gilani was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the 1998 embassy attacks in Tanzania and Kenya. After his capture in Pakistan in 2004, he was held in incommunicado by the CIA for two years, then by the military at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba until 2009, when the Obama Administration transferred him to civilian custody for trial.

But I suspect that while this delay is truly significant, and under normal circumstances would be a clear violation of the constitutional requirement for a speedy trial, I think there is a clear difference between this case and the Boston bombing case. Where Tsarnaev was a civilian captured in the US with no apparent ties to a foreign enemy entity (state-based, state-sponsored, or otherwise), Gilani was captured on foreign soil in the course of a foreign war authorized by Congress. As such, the US was authorized to hold Gilani without charge as a suspected enemy combatant, regardless of his activities in 1998.

Where one might decide to draw the line between these two poles, with arrest under civilian authority on the one end, and capture under foreign relations/law of war authority on the other, I don’t exactly know. However, it is clear that these two cases fall on opposite sides of that divide. So even if Gilani’s speedy trial appeal is defeated, as I suspect it will, that does not limit the concern that such an appeal could lead to the release of convicted terrorists if pre-trial detention is prolonged for intelligence-gathering purposes. Such concerns are very real, and should not be taken lightly.

Paul W. Taylor, Senior Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

The Right to Refuse Foreign Visitors: One of the Few Rights Guaranteed to GTMO Detainees

Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department denied a Russian delegation permission to visit with Ravil Mingazov (ISN 702), a detainee in Guantanamo Bay.

Mingazov is well known in Russia, as a former ballet dancer who had appeared on national television. He converted to Islam while living in Russia, but fled the country to Afghanistan to escape anti-Muslim prejudice. The U.S. captured Mingazov when he was found in a terrorist safe house in Pakistan in 2002. He is also accused of training in al-Qaeda linked camps. Mingazov conveyed, through his lawyers, that he fears returning to his country after the treatment other Russian former-detainees have received upon arriving home. According to Mingazov’s lawyers, “They were subject to persecution upon their release and based on that he does not want to go back.”

Mingazov was in fact ordered released by a federal judge in May of 2010, although he currently remains in Guantanamo. The US has appealed this decision. It is possible that his desire not to be returned to Russia will, or already has, held up his transfer. It is also possible that reasons unknown will keep him in Guantanamo Bay, like numerous other cleared detainees.

Although the State Department had facilitated the Russian delegation’s visit to the military base in Cuba, permission to visit with Mingazov was denied when he refused to see them. According to State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland, there is “a longstanding policy of not forcing such interviews if they’re not voluntary.”

Apparently detainees have a right to refuse foreign visits, but not food, as involuntarily force-feeding is ongoing during the current hunger strike. This highlights one of the many quandaries of Guantanamo Bay.

Ed Dabek, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Seeking Sanity in the Drone Debate

Drone bashing seems to be in vogue these days, especially in on the liberal end of the media spectrum. Many of these critiques are based on faulty information or focus entirely on the most extreme examples or hypothetical situations, such as whether the government could target a US citizen sitting at a Starbucks in NYC. Of course, these arguments are feed by our own elected officials, sometimes of the conservative bent (I’m pointing at you, Rand Paul).

I would like to point out one beacon of sanity among these shrill arguments. Hassan Abbas, in his article at the Atlantic, criticizes US drone policy in Pakistan, does a remarkable job of producing a relatively balanced argument, while still clearly landing on the liberal end of the spectrum. I don’t agree with all of his assessments, or even all of his “ground realities.” For example, it is particularly questionable that we know that around 50-60% of all drone victims have been civilians. Verifying just the numbers is a difficult task, and classifying the victims into combatants and civilians even harder–and his reliance on “local estimates” falls prey to his own critique of the bias in other studies.

However, I actually do agree with his basic assessment of the situation. The use of drones allows policy-makers to feel like they are doing something about the situation, while they are in fact ignoring the underlying issues. For example, as Abbas notes,

“There were roughly 350 drone strikes in the tribal areas since 2004, at an exorbitant cost (even though drone strikes offer a cheaper option in comparison to “boots on ground”). But how many schools were opened in the region over the same period of time? The answer is distressing, as the number of schools has actually declined sharply.”

This is a relatively common argument among the few drone critics who go beyond the temptation to focus on gore or appeals to sovereignty, and take a more nuanced view. But Abbas goes one step further, pointing out the role of those the US drone campaign targets:

“Damages to more than 460 schools throughout the tribal belt at the hands of Taliban has in fact displaced 62,000 children, including 23,000 girls, from school. It doesn’t require very high intelligence to guess that in the absence of schools, and with an increase in violence, what kind of future awaits these kids. Drone strikes may take out some of those who destroyed these schools, but that is hardly a sustainable solution to the larger problem.”

And in this, he is absolutely right. The situation in which the youth were placed in the 1980s and 90s was one of the factors leading to the rise of the Taliban. And as Abbas points out, drones can do little to protect the youth, and nothing to build them new school or provide quality teachers. The drone campaign doesn’t even try to do these things.

After all, our drone policy is basically a band-aid solution. It is designed to keep the leadership of al-Qaeda and the Taliban on the run, but has no hope of finally defeating either organization. However, it is folly to think that just because drones will not solve the security or humanitarian issues in Pakistan and Afghanistan, we should abandon the policy. That said, Abbas is perfectly correct that the solution is not sustainable. It must be augmented (and eventually entirely replaced) by policy directed at the human dimension.

One problem there, though: No one knows how to do that. Any ideas?

Paul Taylor, Senior Research Fellow
Center for Policy & Research