Drones are a strategic liability for US
Violent extremists have a secret ally in the Pentagon. No, not some military officer who voted for Donald Trump and wears a MAGA hat on weekends when he visits gun shows — the secret ally is the U.S. military’s persistent failure to hold anyone accountable when a battlefield mistake kills innocent civilians.
The stock U.S. reply to the accidental killing of civilians in drone attacks is that it will conduct a thorough investigation, with the implication that punishment will be meted out — but that never happens. When you just lost a family member due to an inattentive or inexperienced watch stander in Indian Springs, the fact that his next promotion may be delayed six months doesn’t look like justice. But if Russia or Iran screw up — and they did when they shot down MH17 and PS752 — the U.S. demands a trial at The Hague and new rounds of sanctions.
The military’s explanation after every accidental killing is “mistakes were made, but no one did anything wrong.”
America’s shambolic retreat from Afghanistan was made even more ridiculous by the not-so-funny killing of ten members of a family, including seven children, when the U.S. forces attacked who they thought was an ISIS facilitator, a rushed revenge attack justified as a “righteous strike” by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley.
The truth came out because there were journalists in the capital city of Kabul, unlike many other errant strikes in isolated places in Afghanistan or Pakistan, and the Pentagon’s story unraveled when The New York Times reported the deaths of the Ahmadi family, headed by a man who worked for a U.S.-based aid organization, who hoped to emigrate to the U.S.
Tragedy became farce when the military later admitted it couldn’t find the safe house where the mythical ISIS facilitator was based, despite tracking Mr. Ahmadi all day as he drove around Kabul.
With the truth out, the U.S. military promised a full investigation and, a month later, the U.S. Air Force Inspector General (IG) announced that its review found that “execution errors” (no pun intended) caused the civilian casualties but recommended no disciplinary action, because the troops “truly believed” they were targeting a threat to U.S. forces. Well, OK then.
“Regrettably” was sprinkled throughout, a word salad that left the victims’ survivors likely thinking the U.S. was using its laws to avoid justice.
The IG report was referred to the operational commanders who will probably issue a few letters of caution to some lower ranks, then cite the Privacy Act so they will be forever anonymous. In the hands of a decent lawyer, the “mistakes were made” IG finding will bind the hands of any commander who thinks punishment is warranted.
So, America’s intelligence apparatus — all-seeing, but unknowing — misidentified a family residence as a safe house, tracked the wrong white Toyota Corolla, and killed the wrong people. Six armed drones, and layers of analysts and reviewers — probably 100 people — from Afghanistan to Qatar to Nevada, were involved … and they blew it.
These errors are a labor-saving device for America’s enemies, who can make the case that the U.S. is careless when foreign lives are at stake.
If drones turn out to be a recruiting sergeant for ISIS, we may have to admit that while they’re tactically effective, they are an expensive strategic liability that create more enemies than they kill.
For example, the U.S. tried five times to kill Qari Hussain, a deputy commander of the Pakistani Taliban, before getting lucky the sixth time on Oct. 15, 2010 — but in the process they killed 128 unlucky people, 13 of them children.
After an accident, the military’s priority is to shield its members from civil lawsuits in the U.S., or prosecution in a foreign court that would result in an Interpol Red Notice when the offending troops fail to appear. The U.S. wants to avoid a repeat of the trial in Italy of 22 CIA officers and a U.S. Air Force colonel for the 2003 kidnapping of the convicted terrorist, Abu Omar. All 23 were found guilty in absentia and one of the CIA officers was arrested when she later traveled to Europe.
Drones play to America’s strength — technology — and put no Americans at risk, but the strategic downside is never priced in. The response to U.S. drones will be more drones, but deployed by the opposition, who — if they can’t attack U.S. troops — will settle for soft targets like American embassies, or U.S. allies. And drones’ low cost means civil conflicts — where U.S. troops may be deployed as peacekeepers — will get even deadlier as armed gangs, many styled as “militias,” can now field an air arm for surveillance or attack.
So, America’s drone attacks will prompt an asymmetric response that will be labeled “terrorism,” justifying more drone strikes, and more responses, ad nauseum.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the Pentagon “must work harder” to reduce civilian casualties of U.S. air strikes. Coming 20 years after the first drone operation, on Oct. 7, 2001, which also failed, it proves the smell of cordite isn’t enough to make the military move faster than government speed.
The resulting Pentagon bureaucratic to-and-fro will result in a more detailed pre-strike checklist, but the cat is out of the bag, and the U.S. no longer has the luxury of air superiority, ironically due to the drone technology it pioneered.
James Durso (@james_durso) is the Managing Director of Corsair LLC, a supply chain consultancy. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Durso served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years and specialized in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority. He served afloat as Supply Officer of the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578).