This little snippet from the MOD report, as covered by The Guardian, caught my eye, particularly in light of Abu al-Walid al-Masri and Sayf al-Adl’s dialogue and the discussions currently going on within AQ about targeting strategies.
The insurgents “gain every time a mistake is made”, enabling them to cast themselves “in the role of underdog and the west as a cowardly bully that is unwilling to risk his own troops, but is happy to kill remotely”, the report adds.
This raises a very important point that I don’t feel is adequately addressed in debates about the effectiveness of using drones, and in particular, the unintended consequences of their use. So below are my sleep deprived, off the top of my head thoughts about the issue.
I’m adding this to the pile of things I hope to write about in a more considered way next month, when I am finally free of the thesis. YAY! Well I’m actually free of it next week, but need a small break before leaping into writing again. In the meantime, here goes with the sleep deprived thinking out loud, off the top of my head effort….
Using drones does exactly as this report notes; it allows the presentation of a narrative that the west is unwilling to risk troops but will kill remotely. There is a lot of talk about how the use of drones plays into radicalisation, but very little talk about how this feeds into AQ’s ability to ‘sell’ to other groups its external operations and targeting of citizens away from the battlefield, and the operational implications of this.
I’m not talking here about radicalisation at the grassroots level inasmuch as I am about AQ’s standing with other groups, how it interacts with them, how it influences (or not) their targeting strategies, and how it deals with criticism of its MO of targeting civilians off the battlefield.
In other words, in all of the talk about drones and their effectiveness, there has been a failure to address or consider that the west’s use of drones gives AQ an ‘out’ when encountering criticism of its MO from within its own milieu, and allows it to militate against such criticism—by using the argument noted by the report.
But more importantly, I haven’t seen any studies that look into the potential consequences of the use of drones in terms of empowering AQ to advertise its MO, and encourage others to use the same strategy (and here radicalisation of grassroots groups and what MO they adopt if they operationalise does come into it).
I think serious attention needs to paid as to whether a sustained use of drones could see the strategy of external attacks against civilians off the battlefield become the dominant tactic in the militant salafist milieu.
And here I’d note that it currently is not. Not all groups agree with AQ about targeting civilians off the battlefield, some even within AQ may not agree with how its targeting has evolved (as we are seeing in the various debates and releases at the moment). After all, most who are radicalised still want to go off and fight armed jihad. What do they do if there are no soldiers? So there are very real implications on relying on remote warfare to combat external operations by AQ, namely that has a very real potential to drive an increase in this MO as a means of hitting back at the west in a reciprocal manner. I don’t know what the answer is to this, but I do know that the consequences of using drones as a substitute have not been adequately addressed.
At a time when AQ’s external operations are coming into question through various international events and internal discussions (both within the group and the broader milieu) serious thought needs to be given as to how using drones might allow AQ breathing room, because it adds to the justification of external operations as a way of evening the battlefield. In other words, AQ can justify, in a cloak of legitimacy, external operations as its own reciprocal form of ‘remote’ warfare.
This has implications for not only radicalisation but also the operational uptake of the MO across a broader swathe of groups, particularly if the MO is sanctioned by new fatawa.
Following on from this, there has been no consideration as to whether the use of drones is going to drive (or has driven?) stronger ‘shariah’ justifications from within the militant salafist milieu for the use of external operations against civilian targets. In this respect, there has been, to my knowledge, very little, if any consideration of how the west’s use of drones may in fact drive (or have driven) the issuing of a number of new fatawa, particularly since militant salafists could draw from their own exegesis of stipulations relating to reciprocity in warfare.
Of course adopting or choosing a course of action based on what the other side is going to do is not always reason enough to stop or start something, but the point I fear I am rather badly making is that these real and potential consequences of the use of drones have not been examined, and are not being addressed.
Instead, we find the ubiquitous argument that drone strikes are effective in preventing AQ from launching attacks. This is not an argument that can stand up to close scrutiny, particularly if we look at the variables that impact upon capacity, capability and planning to operationalisation dynamics. Simply put, this can not be proven, only assumed. And that assumption goes straight out the window when an attack coordinated or directed from the region takes place, or is foiled.
Here I’d also note the planning has not stopped, or the operational tempo necessarily slowed down. What has changed is that more plots are being foiled. And the role of drones in foiling plots is questionable. Law enforcement and intelligence work foil plots. And as I noted earlier, arguing that drones have reduced capability, based on the argument that senior leaders have been taken out, or trainees killed, overlooks a number of other variables and is not something that can be easily proven.
But anyway, even assuming the argument that drones have reduced AQ’s capability and capacity is correct and verifiable ( that is, to say that AQ’s intent to attack remains, but its ability is restricted) what then if drone attacks actually drive a broader adoption of the MO of external attacks? (Here I’m thinking of the foray into external operations by the Pakistan Taliban, as a case in point.) What if fatawa are released that sanction external attacks based on the notion of reciprocity of ‘remote’ attacks?
If we consider how AQ exercises command and control via its manhaj and ideology, and then we look at a potential spread of the MO, ‘sold’ as a means of evening the battlefield and reciprocity of action, the argument for what makes drone strikes effective tends to go out the window.
Why? Because there is a diffusion of the MO, sanctioned, incorporated into strategic guidance, and not necessarily requiring the input or support (beyond broad strategic direction) of the senior leadership. I’m sure there’s an analogy for this somewhere. I just can’t think of one right now, so instead let’s move onto the counter-argument.
While the counter-argument to this is that AQ is likely to find any excuse to attack, relying solely on this argument overlooks a broader dynamic at play. The more remote warfare is used, the more AQ’s narrative and justification is reinforced, as the above snippet from the report highlights. That means more ‘justification’ for AQ to exercise reciprocity of ‘remote’ attacks ( Translation: external operations against civilian targets in the west). If this is accompanied by new fatawa, which justify external operations in this context, the MO spreads.
It spreads to grassroots groups following AQ’s manhaj and who seek to implement its strategic guidance by carrying out external operations. And it has the potential to spread to other groups.
More importantly, it weakens the position of those in the milieu who stand for jihad being restricted to the battlefield. And more importantly again, it weakens those who are trying to combat the spread of such an ideological position. This in turn has implications for combating the spread of the ‘grassroots’ phenomena and for CT prevention strategies in the west, particularly those targeted at vulnerable groups and the means used to argue against using such MO.
Whew. So there you have it. That was what went through my mind when I read that snippet. It was basically a very long winded and stream of consciousness way of saying that much more attention needs to be paid the consequences of using drones, particularly over the long term. It may seem like an attractive solution, and it’s all fine and good to talk about how effective they are, but if you’re not considering these consequences I don’t see how you can make that argument.
Update: thanks for @azelin for pointing out spelling error, perils of writing while tired.
I finally managed to sneak some time to have a read of Alex and Felix’s report Separating the Taliban from al Qaeda: The Core of Success in Afghanistan. Most of my regular readers have probably already read the report, but for those of you who haven’t I would strongly recommend you read it.
They raise a number of important issues, but what stands out the most for me is the issue of the younger generation rising through Taliban ranks and the risk of ideological contagion. As Alex and Felix note, there is some room to negotiate with the older generation of leaders. However, failing to fully pursue this opportunity now, does not bode well for the future; where a younger, more radical generation will gain more power, and sideline the older generation.
I’ve been watching the debate about the Afghanistan Study Group report with interest. And while I’m cynically amused by the sooky la la reaction of some contributors to the criticism they have encountered and even more amused at the irony of this given their report criticized the current US strategy, I’m also extremely worried.
Several people have criticised the report not so much for the conclusions that it reached but the manner in which it reached them. See for example Josh, Christian and maybe Andrew . To my mind, the main issue of contention seems to be that the foundation of knowledge (or assumptions) upon which this report was based is deeply flawed. That’s been covered elsewhere in great detail, some of which I agree with and some of which I don’t.
But what worries me the most is the “so what?” issue that seems to be prevailing in response to criticisms about issues with the foundation of knowledge, or whether it is required when authoring a study like this. That somehow a policy document does not need such a foundation.
The “so what?” dynamic seems to be manifesting as an argument that goes something like this: since this is a document dealing with US national interests and grand strategy it does not matter. But this isn’t just a document about grand strategy.
It’s a document about strategy in Afghanistan. Look at the five point approach for example. Leaving aside the issues here in terms of a levels of analysis problem, and also purpose schizophrenia, I’d like to highlight why I think people are getting their knickers in a knot over the foundation being flawed because it seems that this has not been set out in some of the critiques.
And the way I like to look at these things is the good old “what if?” question. What if this document is accepted, and then adopted?
Here’s where it gets tricky. If the foundation of knowledge upon which conclusions are drawn and an alternative strategy fashioned is wrong, what follows will be wrong.
For example imagine if the premises upon which the ASG formed this “way forward” shape or influence operational strategy. That’s when things would start to go very pear shaped, if the foundation of knowledge was wrong. Because the reality doesn’t meet the strategy, because the strategy has started top down and not only just top down but based on assumed wisdom that is potentially deeply flawed. Then the top down strategy gets imposed onto the situation and some poor bastard has to try to move forward with something that doesn’t fit the reality and is basically given the task of trying to hammer a square into a circle.
Or we might look at it this way. The ASG has reached similar conclusions to a number of people, but based on a reportedly deeply flawed foundation. So, imagine if they then get asked to provide input as to how to operationalise this strategy. Because of the way in which they have reached their conclusions and their “way forward” and the deeply flawed foundation of knowledge they have, the way that they suggest going forward is not going to meet the outcomes they outlined. Nor would it necessarily survive on the ground, and thus be a pretty pointless exercise. To my mind, aside from the other critiques, this is the main point people are trying to make. That this report and its “way forward” is a house built on sand. It looks great, people like it. But it can’t hold up because the foundation of knowledge is flawed.
I think Andrew Exum touched on this when he suggested he’d have people who were in charge of operationalising a strategy as well as subject matter experts involved with formulating such a study. (at least this is my reading of what he meant)
I know that my outline above is a very simplistic reading of “what if” but it is important, because as Steve Clemons himself noted, the signatories have influence. That’s great, but in this case, if the foundation is flawed, it’s also a big problem.
I’m not averse to their conclusions, like many others. But I do think, given the concerns voiced about their foundation of knowledge being deeply flawed, they have a responsibility to “rethink” their “rethink”. Here I’d draw upon the objectives of the study being to put forward an alternative strategy. To continue to push forward in this direction without further engagement and consideration of whether the foundation upon which they based their study is indeed flawed, would be deeply irresponsible.
So, on that note, I’m sincerely hoping to see reports of more meetings and a revised document. The folks of the ASG have a wonderful opportunity to now show us how it is done. And we’d all learn from it.
In which Mr Foust takes the ASG to task. Well worth a read.
I find it interesting this has been portrayed as brutal. By Australian standards, it’s pretty gentle.
By way of example, consider this excerpt from an article that featured in the preeminent broadsheet here in Oz, The Australian.
It begins with this:
PROFESSOR Hugh White of the Australian National University has done something remarkable. He has written the single, stupidest strategic document ever prepared in Australian history by someone who once held a position of some responsibility in our system (White was once deputy secretary of the Defence Department).
The author of this piece is Greg Sheridan, a senior journalist/scholar, who is the Foreign Editor at said newspaper.
Mosharraf Zaidi has a really interesting piece out that is well worth a read. It’s on how India should deal with Afghanistan, and Karzai more specifically. You can find it here.
I found this little breakdown of the groups active in Waziristan quite interesting, especially the listing of the smaller groupings towards the end of the post. Also interesting is the history of this particular author, but that’s another story.
Link is here
The questions are now in and I think close today for the upcoming forum ‘town hall’ meeting with Sirajuddin Haqqani. There is no indication of how long it will take him to respond to the questions posed by forum readers.
The questions make for fascinating reading as to the issues on the mind of those in the forums. Below is a pretty random list of some of the issues covered off and the questions posed. One thing that strikes me about the questions readers are asking is that these types of questions are normally posed to a Sheikh/senior figure with authority. It’s been something AQ usually only does, so I find this quite fascinating and it will be very interesting to see how Haqqani answers the questions, some of which are seeking guidance on issues outside his scope of operations/authority.
Ok, to the list of questions
- the impact of recent arrests
- the attack by Abu Dujana al Khorasani
- the difference between Pakistan Taliban and Afghanistan Taliban
- whether Haqqani or the Pakistan or Afghan Taliban support global jihad and an extension of their operations into the global realm
- his opinion on other militant groups in Iraq, Somalia, the Arabian Penisula, Kashmir, Turkestan, Sudan, Morocco, Algeria
- lots of questions about Hamas and general questions about whether the Taliban wish push beyond jihad in Afghanistan to liberate Jerusalem
- position on Iran, questions about Baluchistan
- position on Hekmatyar
- position on Pakistan
- the David Rhode escape
- the US soldier held captive and prisoner exchanges more generally as well as recent claims about exchange for Siddiqui
- his position on elections in Afghanistan after a US withdrawal
- the role of women in the Afghan jihad
- jihadist media and his exposure to it
- position on China
- position on using drug money to fund jihad
- whether the Taliban will demand reparations after US withdrawal
- whether he is getting support from groups in the Arabian Peninsula
- whether Mullah Omar has authority to approve attacks outside of Afghanistan and whether he would globalise the jihad
- his position in relation to Mullah Omar and bin Laden
- the relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda–quite a few questions on this
- whether or not bin Laden would be put on trial by Omar if he returned to Afghanistan under new Taliban rule (clearly this reader has read Abu Walid’s work
As I said earlier, many of these types of questions are normally thrown at al Qaeda leaders, as the defacto leaders of global jihad, so I find it fascinating that Haqqani is being asked similar questions.
I wonder whether this is because they genuinely think he has this authority or because he is more accessible (especially since AQ’s As Sahaab has totally gone down the toilet courtesy of Adam Gadahn taking over the reins) and Q&A’s with al Qaeda have been few and far between. Although having said that, there was one a few months ago. These questions to Haqqani weren’t quite at the level of that Q&A in terms of explicitly seeking fatwas, but they are moving in that direction.
How he responds to these I think will be telling and will reveal how this particular wing is setting itself up, with an eye on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and what comes next. Haqqani will have to be careful because a lot of these questions fall firmly into al Qaeda’s ambit and bin Laden is not at all fond of strategic competition. Mind you with Sahaab the way it is and bin Laden’s absence from the scene and Yahya and co being unusually quiet, AQ may not be able to do much about this. Or alternatively we may see it put something out in the future that attempts to put it firmly back in the mix in relation to the issues that are being raised in this Q&A. If I were AQ I’d be seriously worried about my brand value and strategic control when my adherents are asking a group with a thus far local agenda all about my ambit of global jihad. This leads me back to Sahaab being down the toilet and AQ having a serious strategic communication problem of late.
Anyway, that’s just my off the top of my head thoughts on the matter. I wish I had time to write something more considered about this, but I’m knee deep in chapter edits. Link is below (in Arabic for those interested)
I’ve been reading through the earlier chapters of my thesis today trying to cull words and quite frankly would prefer to stab myself in the eye with a pen. However, I digress.
Anyway, I came across this quote from an interview by Robert Kaplan in 1988 with an old mujahideen commander from the first Afghan war, who was executed by the Taliban in October 2001.
You want to know why it’s dumb to attack Jalalabad? Because it’s dumb to lose ten thousand lives. There’s no way the mujahidin can take the city now. It’s surrounded by a river, mountains, and minefields. And if we do take it, what’s going to happen? The Russians will bomb the shit out of us, that’s what….
And if they don’t bomb the shit out of us, then we have Jalalabad and they have Kabul—parity, two Afghan governments. Then there will be pressure for us to negotiate. No, we must take no cities. Take everything but.
The last three sentences struck me, and to my mind, little has changed in mujahideen strategy since then. The Taliban may carry out attacks in the big cities, but they too follow this strategy. Of course after a US withdrawal this would no doubt change, but until then this strategy will stand.
Interesting article, I wonder if there is a transcript anywhere of Ainsworth’s comments. This snippet caught my interest.
I don’t believe that reintegration is something you do after victory. This is not total war. We’re not looking for unconditional surrender in Afghanistan. We’re looking for the stabilisation of a country and its participation in the world in a manner that doesn’t threaten its neighbours and doesn’t threaten us.
We mustn’t raise that bar too high in terms of our preparedness to bring people in. Neither should we wait until there is real victory before we try to reconcile or reintegrate those elements in the insurgency who are prepared to come across.