global war on terror
This past week, terrorists struck Westgate Mall in Nairobi. Al Shabaab, a Somali Islamist organization, claimed responsibility. Frustratingly, we still know very little about the attackers, their origins, or the Kenyan security forces’ response. And the news about the last just keeps getting worse.
But there has been some analysis of the attacks – by both journalists and academics. In one of the most widely-circulated pieces, Somalia specialist Ken Menkhaus suggested that the attacks were a sign of desperation, the last gasp of an organization that had run out of an intra-Somalia game (also, here and here). Another strand of argument suggests that the growing ascendancy of a single Al Shabaab leader, Abdul Abdi Godane, has pushed the organization toward Al Qaeda, toward international jihad, toward further attacks on soft targets abroad (here and here and here). The presumption is, again, that we're at a critical juncture for Al Shabaab, a moment of inflection at which the organization changes its character and its aims. See my AU colleague Joe Young’s piece at Political Violence @ a Glance for a roundup of some of this.
In this post, I’m going to make some empirical quibbley points about Somalia, and then I’m going to make a couple of substantive points about terrorism / COIN analysis in general. So if you're not terribly interested in Somalia, you still might want to skip to the end.
In recent days, there have been reports of U.S. drone strikes in North Waziristan, Pakistan. According to the New York Times article, these strikes killed at least two people. This remote area of Pakistan has long been subject to U.S. drone strikes.
The Times also reports that U.S. anti-terrorism efforts are shifting theaters from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Africa. This shift includes the expansion of the use of surveillance drones in Mali, flown from a new drone base in Niger. According to the story, the U.S. is partnering with France “to track fighters affiliated with Al Qaeda and other militants” (my emphasis). One of the points of the article is that the U.S. needs to acquire knowledge about local conditions. According to Michael R. Shurkin, a former CIA analyst who is now at RAND, “Effective responses… require excellent knowledge about local populations and their politics, the sort of understanding that too often eludes the U.S. government and military.” Without understanding local conditions, the author contends, the introduction of drones “runs the risk of creating the type of backlash that has undermined American efforts in Pakistan.”
In a post this week, Charli Carpenter discusses evidence that the civilian death count from drones has been drastically underestimated. She argues that if the death counts are higher than publicly estimated, any humanitarian argument about the use of drone as “precision” weapons “goes out the window.” (Side note: those interested in drones and the continued mechanization of war and security should read her (gated) article “Beware the Killer Robots.”)
All of these recent stories should lead to a more profound appreciation of Akbar Ahmed’s recent book The Thistle and the Drone. Ahmed has a simple, yet profound thesis: “it is the conflict between the center and the periphery and the involvement of the United States that has fueled the war on terror.” According to Ahmed, this conflict has played itself out for centuries, as evidenced by European efforts to “civilize” tribes throughout the world in their colonies, the U.S. efforts to in the west to pacify and relocate indigenous tribes, and current efforts by Russia to end separtist violence in Chechnya… and, Ahmed would argue, those discussed above in Pakistan and Mali. The drone is merely the newest weapon in the center’s arsenal.
Editor's Note: This is a guest post by Tobias T. Gibson, an associate professor of political science and security studies at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo.
In the buildup to President Obama’s speech at National Defense University on May 23, the administration suggested that the speech would clarify US policy on the use of drones in targeted killing. Although the president took pains to describe the limitations set forth by his administration, the speech provided little genuine clarity.
The working definitions of three very important words play a key role in undermining the putative "transparency" provided by the speech. In a key passage, the President states that
Beyond the Afghan theater, we only target al Qaeda and its associated forces. Even then, the use of drones is heavily constrained. America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists – our preference is always to detain, interrogate, and prosecute them. America cannot take strikes wherever we choose – our actions are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty. America does not take strikes to punish individuals – we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat. And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set. [emphasis mine]
These three key constraints on the administration may amount to very little in the way of genuine barriers to the use of drone strikes.
The word 'global' has become so frequently used in Western strategic debate that is has almost become background music. On one level, overuse robs it of resonance. But on another, it might be contributing to the conceptual and rhetorical overstretch that has led the US to overextend itself.
"This is what winning looks like"
I have to confess, I was late to watch "Zero Dark Thirty" (ODT). I read a handful of reviews and blogs about the movie, had arguments with friends about its message, and even wrote it off completely--all weeks before I bothered to watch it. I wasn't interested in watching another American war movie, nor was I keen to see the lengthy torture scenes I had read about in the reviews. I figured I already knew exactly what the content was (are there every any real surprises in American war movies? and, didn't we all know how this story ended anyway?) and that there was really nothing left to say. BUT, I think there is something left to say about the film.
First, let's all be honest: most of us walked away from this movie saying to ourselves "did I miss something?" What about the film deserved all the Oscar hype, debate, and acclaim? By most standards, this was a classic, boring American war movie. In this case, the lack of plot and acting skills are made up with using violent torture scenes rather than expensive battle scenes. There is no emotional journey, no big moral dilemma that the characters are going through (I'll get to torture soon), little plot twist (again, we all know how it ends after all), and no unique or interesting characters (don't get me started on Jessica Chastain--what exactly about her stone-faced performance warrants an Oscar? perhaps she deserves an award for for 'most consistent blank expression'). So what gives? Is this just another "King's Speech"? Meaning, is this just another big movie that people talk about and get behind, but no one actually can put their finger on what was remotely interesting about it (never mind what was destructive about it)?
So I'm calling it. Not only was this movie soul-less, boring and poorly made, everyone seemed to miss the message (and it is easy enough to do). The real question about ODT is not whether or not it is condoning torture.
This time last week, international intervention plans in Mali consisted of a rather under-powered African (ECOWAS) force, which was expected to arrive no earlier than September. This force was not backed by overpowering consensus. Nigeria and Mauritania, the two best-equipped militaries in the region, were reluctant to pledge serious troops. The United States insisted that free and fair presidential elections must precede any international intervention, even after a December coup rendered this unrealistic. And the Malian government itself seemed an obstacle. The December coup signaled the resurgence of hardliners within the junta, who claimed that the Malian military – broken and demoralized as it was – could deal with northern insurgents on its own. Tweets out of Mali (and even statements in the press) took a nationalist turn, and international intervention, even by an African force, began to seem fraught.
And now, seven days later, we’re in a brand new world.*
Some commentators have suggested posts that pose questions to our readers. I think that the discussion on Peter Henne's piece, "A Modest Defense of Terrorism Studies,"
APThis is a guest post by Peter S. Henne. Peter is a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University. He formerly worked as a national security consultant.
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