Opinion | National Security

Our remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Afghanistan has begun its fade into the history of American foreign policy, yet the aftershocks of the war on terror remain entrenched in policy decisions, with implications that could very well threaten our future security and stability. 

With the loss of permanent basing in Afghanistan, President Biden has touted an over-the-horizon counter terrorism strategy, a system built on sensors and remote systems: "We've developed an over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats to the U.S. in the region and to act quickly and decisively if needed." 

There is tremendous risk in reliance on disaggregate and remote technology, primarily not understanding the full situation on the ground resulting from the degrees of separation between target and analyst. No number of high-definition screens, signals intelligence, and delay-hampered tracking across disparate environs will advance American security or redress the failures of a poorly defined counter-terror strategy from previous decades.

Biden's decision echoes the inclinations of his predecessors. Under the Obama administration, an exponential increase in the use of remote-controlled warfare to counter extremism skyrocketed, thanks largely to the vague legal limits from the early phases of the program under President Bush. President Trump clouded oversight on remote warfare by executive order, revoking legal mandates on intelligence disclosures of civilian deaths by remote-weapon airstrikes. While safeguarding U.S. service members and avoiding international entanglement is an applaudable ambition, the risk of deepening global antagonism against the United States through this type of disassociated warfare is increased; remote-warfare employment makes lethal effects easier to perpetuate with fewer consequences of oversight - that is to say, the temptation to overuse this capability is profound while the results are questionably effective at best.

The decision to parlay American technological prowess into a replacement for boots on the ground operations carries many risks, notably, the temptation to perpetuate the insulated, haphazard use of sensors instead of definitive, real-time data that would normally drive ground operations in sensitive environments. By employing this over-the-horizon paradigm, lethal effects are now entrusted to the credibility and timeliness of data that omits that critical on-the-ground picture, exacerbated by degrees of separation inherent to sensor screens and inevitable transmission delays through distance, time and familiarity. For certain, remote-warfare technology has improved exponentially in recent decades, although over-reliance on this filtered fidelity between the target and kill chain decision-maker increases the chances for mishaps in the form of civilian casualties.

No example serves to emphasize this point better than the retaliatory, over-the-horizon airstrike in Kabul on Aug. 29, following the ISIS-K suicide bombing that claimed 13 U.S. service members lives and wounded dozens of civilians. In that airstrike, per a New York Times investigation, misidentification of real-time data resulted in an errant selection of persons determined to be carrying weapons or materiel associated with hostile intent. Yesterday, the Pentagon admitted to mistaking a civilian vehicle for one associated with ISIS-K in the incident. 

The failure is not in the intelligence collection or reporting leading up to the moment of mishap, the failure is with the decision makers who elected to conduct the strike while the ground truth remained unclear.

Reliance on remote-technology to perpetuate a poorly understood counter terror paradigm will sustain the risks of the forever war that just ended - improved recruitment for violent extremism, images of civilian deaths directly attributed to American military might, and the unanswered question about what limits are in place for this type of lethality across international borders.

Within the U.S. Special Operations Command capabilities already exist for a robust, highly mobile counterterror package built for global response - a strategic reaction force, as it were. Among these are global access and precision strike capabilities, hyper-connectivity, an emphasis on strategic partnerships, while the full Special Operations Forces arrangement boasts decentralized operability in austere locales. U.S. Special Operations Command has lived and breathed nothing but counterterrorism for two decades, and while the enterprise understands and is re-vectoring for strategic competition, it will not shed its institutional knowledge of counter terror operations full stop. Therefore, a concentrated component that adopts a new model coalescing intelligence, targeting and interdiction capabilities with strategic partnerships responsive to credible threats is a more worthy option than trusting the policy to remote operations.

Biden is already on the record as a proponent of limited Special Operations Forces employment against violent extremism, which includes his opposition to then-President Obama's 2010-2011 troop surge in Afghanistan, favoring a small contingent of specialized forces over mass occupation. There is a path forward for some form of constructive counterterror strategy, one that doesn't rely on the limitations of stove piped sensor feeds and delayed intelligence.

America just ended one forever war, we cannot in good faith keep it going at the fringes through the modality of unrestrained remote technology.

Ethan Brown is an 11-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force as a Special Operations Joint Terminal Attack controller. He is currently the senior fellow for Defense Studies at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, a contributor to the Diplomatic Courier, and has written for the Modern War Institute (West Point), RealClearDefense and The Hill. He can be found on Twitter @LibertyStoic.

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