Over the weekend, news broke that the United States government had made the decision to exchange five Guantanamo Bay prisoners for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl roughly five years after his capture by Taliban forces in Afghanistan. While many have applauded the effort to bring home a captured member of the American armed forces, not everybody has been so quick to label this course of action “correct.” Continue reading
In an opinion piece published in today’s edition of The New York Times, the newspaper’s editorial board explored the foreign policy concerns raised by the Bergdahl prisoner swap, “starting with President Obama’s decision to ignore a law that required him to notify Congress in advance about the bargain that secured the soldier’s freedom, and about how trading five high-value Taliban prisoners from the detention camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, could affect America’s antiterrorism policy.”
The article raises an interesting debate that the Transparent Policy team will continue to explore in upcoming posts; we encourage you to read the article in its entirety here.
Despite claims that drone strikes in Pakistan have been effective and efficient, new reports are set to come out later this week that link the drone campaign with high civilian casualty rates, raising questions regarding the United State’s transparency in the ongoing drone war. Continue reading
About two weeks ago, I promised to outline a new approach to the US’s national security problems in Pakistan as a way to end or reduce the reliance on drone warfare. Here it is, at least in broad outlines: Continue reading
Early yesterday, the sentencing phase of the trial of Bradley Manning, the source of the Wikileaks scandal, began at Fort Meade. As I said yesterday, Manning was acquitted of aiding the enemy, the most serious charge against him. Still, Bradley Manning was convicted on 20 of 22 counts, including charges of violating the Espionage Act of 1917. The prosecution and defense both agreed with Col. Denise Lind that Manning faces a total of 136 years in a military prison for his crimes.
On top of the potential 136-year prison sentence, the parties also agreed that Bradley Manning will be demoted to the rank of enlisted private, dishonorably discharged from the Army, and stripped of all pay and benefits that he would have otherwise received.
The star witness of yesterday’s sentencing hearing was Brig. Gen. Robert A. Carr (ret.), who is now an executive at defense contractor Northrop Grumman. General Carr’s expertise on the matter comes from a long career overseeing the Army’s intelligence gathering operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bosnia. His last assignment as a member of the Army was to gather information and assess the extent to which information released by Wikileaks harmed soldiers in the field and jeopardized American national security.
Now that the bulk of Bradley Manning’s sentence has already been settled, all that remains is to determine how much of the potential 136-year sentence he will actually serve and what monetary fines the court will impose on him. I find it hard to believe at this point that Manning, who is just 25 years old, will ever be a free man. I guess that’s just what 20 separate convictions for espionage will get you. But now that he has been stripped of all benefits and pay and will probably spend most or all of his life behind bars, arguing about monetary fines is basically just a formality. It’s probably not very realistic to expect him to pay up.
Anyways, General Carr’s testimony centered around whether or not Bradley Manning’s crimes actually led to any deaths in the field. General Carr claimed that exactly one death, an Afghani national with ties to the U.S. government, occurred as a result of the Wikileaks scandal. The Taliban reportedly killed him after obtaining the information. However, when pressed by the defense, General Carr admitted that the man was never named in war logs released by Julian Assange and any mention of the death was stricken from the official record. General Carr still insisted that Bradley Manning’s crimes had put U.S. soldiers and Afghani allies at risk by detailing the relationship between certain Afghani forces and the U.S. military.
It’s interesting that not even General Carr, the prosecution’s authority on the supposed damage caused by Bradley Manning, could not point to a single instance where the leaks led to even one casualty. The only such accusation was quickly stricken from the record. To me, this shows just how desperate the government was to make an example out of Manning with the aiding the enemy charge. There’s really no other explanation for moving forward with that charge with only one precarious piece of evidence.
The trial still has a long way go. The defense is still days, maybe weeks away from presenting evidence of mitigating circumstances that could soften the blow of Bradley Manning’s 20 convictions. Like I said before, Manning isn’t going to be a free man any time soon. But if today was any indication, he might not be looking at a 136-year sentence after all.
Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
Sometime in the last twelve years, someone moved the goalposts. We’ve gone from wanting to crush the Taliban like the backwater illiterates they are, to wanting to abide their trouble while we slowly secure the country.
And according to then-outgoing commander of our troops in Afghanistan, General John Allen, “This is winning, this is what victory looks like.”
What he did not add was that winning would look like this for years to come. 2014 has come to be seen as what one Afghan official has called a “magical date”, a make-or-break date by which the conflict will effectively be determined one way or the other. But the truth is that there is little reason to believe that it will all be sorted out by then.
This is a sad result for the most powerful military the world has ever seen, but realizing the limits of our ability to drive the outcome is an appropriate and helpful adjustment to the factual situation.
The time in which a decisive battlefield victory over Taliban was possible ended sometime in late 2001 or very early 2002, and was given up when we decided not to press Pakistan to seal off its border (or allow us to do so). Since then, the US and the Afghan government it helped into being have been engaged in a cross-border insurgency, and it is by the fundamental laws of insurgency that the conflict will be won or lost.
We need to abandon the naïve idea that we can crush the Taliban on the field of battle, and realize the truth that has been recognized by the Taliban since the beginning: winning will be determined by which side can be relied upon to provide basic governmental services like security and justice.
And while some may have read my earlier post as entirely pessimistic, there is reason to hope that Afghanistan is at least generally headed in the right direction. First, Afghans themselves are making the investment, in very real terms. According to General John Allen:
“[E]very Sunday when we’ve read the names of our Coalition dead, the Afghan National Army steps up to recognize the sons of Afghanistan, also who have sacrificed in this conflict. And every week there are 25 or 35 or 45 killed in action and 50 or 60 or 70 wounded. There can be no doubt that Afghanistan is investing in its own future. The cost is paid in the blood of their finest young warriors.”
A report by CSIS indicates the total ANSF deaths are now well over 4,000, and it seems likely they are growing faster than those of ISAF.
In addition, the Afghan Army have been largely successful in keeping civilian casualties to a minimum, despite the increased combat pressure they are bearing and the fact that are not yet as professional as their mentors. According to the CSIS report:
“Between 1 January and 30 June, UNAMA documented 20 civilian deaths and 12 injured from search and seizure operations by Pro-Government Forces, a decrease of 27 percent compared with the same period in 2011. This is consistent with the downward trends documented in the same periods in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Civilian casualties as a result of ANSF and ISAF escalation of force incidents continued to decrease in 2012.”
The Afghan Government is also working to reduce its reputation for brutal interrogation and detention. For example, in response to recent reports detailing the prevalence of torture in Afghan detention centers, President Karzai has ordered that all interrogations be video recorded to ensure that the detainees are properly treated.
Such hard-fought successes can be short-lived, as can be seen in Karzai’s ban on ANSF calls for close air support in residential areas in response to an incident that caused severe collateral damage. However, this may be a good development in the long run. Remember that the Taliban cannot be defeated on the field of battle: the flip-side of that coin is that the Government can lose the population’s support by a too-aggressive approach. The French learned this same lesson in Algeria, where their brutal tactics won them a very shallow and self-defeating victory over their insurgent foes. Reducing civilian casualties is an important component of providing civilians a sense of security.
The other major good that the government must provide to the people in order to bolster its legitimacy and weaken the Taliban’s appeal is in the area of governance, justice and civil conflict resolution. Here, the vast majority of the damage done to its reputation has been entirely self-inflicted: endemic corruption in the courts and police has caused many in the south to turn to the Taliban to help them resolve their disputes with one another. While the Taliban verdicts are swift and harsh, they are also perceived as untainted by biased and corruption.
Unfortunately, there is little indication that the highest levels of the US or Afghanistan governments are very interested in tackling the corruption issue. Few official statements by either government ever mention the issue as more than a passing reference. Furthermore, little progress has been made in the past decade. Indeed, a recent report by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime found that while the number of Afghans who have to pay bribes has been dropping since 2009 (from 59% of Afghans to a mere 50%), the total cost of the corruption has risen 40%. And those who find themselves in the position where they must pay a bribe are subjected to higher bribes more often.
While there is good news in that there has been a 10% drop in the incidence of police bribery, this is counterbalanced by the fact that there has been no improvement in the judicial branch. Indeed, while the reporting rate of bribery appears to high by international standards, only one fifth of these reports lead to any investigation.
Since it’s speedy and reliable night courts are the one of the Taliban’s greatest selling points, it is imperative to Afghanistan’s long term stability that the epidemic of corruption be brought to heel. While it would be pie in the sky to think that success ending corruption could be quickly and easily be achieved by any means, the Afghan government and the US as its partner must secure steady and visible progress in reducing the corruption that impacts the day-to-day lives of Afghan citizens. This is perhaps especially important in the sectors that are mandated to combat corruption, such as the police and courts.
Thankfully, the lower levels of the US government have begun to take some steps in this direction. In the last few years, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has quietly begun to tackle the US military’s enormous contribution to the climate of corruption (as well as some of its absurdly wasteful practices), while USAID’s Assistance for Afghanistan’s Anti-Corruption Authority program has helped Afghanistan develop its High Office of Oversight and supported civil watch-dog groups. Clearly, much more must be done, but it is precisely these sorts of quiet efforts that will prove most effective in the long run.
Even if the Afghan government is able to reduce the corruption that encourages support for the Taliban, the insurgency will continue to drag on for years so long as they have a sanctuary in which to rest, recover, and prepare for the next operation. This is even more true if they may continue to rely on a state sponsor for support. Because of this, Pakistan plays a pivotal role in determining the longevity of the Taliban movement.
Thankfully, here too there is some reason for hope. With its increased internal instability, Pakistan has recently changed its strategic goal, limiting their references to “strategic depth” (read proxy government in Afghanistan) and calling instead for “power sharing” between the Afghan government and the Taliban. With its interest in stability along its border, the more Pakistan can be convinced that the Afghan state will not crumble in the wake of the US withdrawal, the less support it will provide to the opposition.
As with governance and security, progress in this regard will likely come in small and barely-noticeable form. It will not come as an announcement of a new policy or realignment on the part of Pakistan, but as changes in the attitudes of Pakistani leadership, declines in public support for the Taliban or in opposition to the US, or incremental reduction of support from the military.
This is What Victory Looks Like
Afghanistan has not been a stunning success by any metric. It was badly bungled, then pushed onto the back burner for years. By the time Americans noticed that it was still going on, the Taliban had regained much of their previous strength and had plenty of opportunity to hone their skills.
Yet it may yet be true that, from our current vantage point, this is what success looks like. Securing Afghanistan will require the long and tiring process of building state legitimacy while wearing down, coopting, and waiting out the insurgency.
“[O]ur victory here may never be marked by a parade or a point in time on a calendar when victory is declared. This insurgency will be defeated over time by the legitimate and well-trained Afghan forces that are emerging today, who are taking the field in full force this spring. Afghan forces defending Afghan people and enabling the government of this country to serve its citizens. This is victory. This is what winning looks like, and we should not shrink from using these words.”
Paul Taylor, Senior Research Fellow
Center for Policy & Research