Thursday, May 22, 2014

Is The Drone War A Mistake?

A just-published study, When Heads Roll, by Jenna Jordan looks at how decapitation attacks (drone strikes) impact terrorist organizations. Her conclusion: they're not effective in shutting terrorists orgs down (well, it is if terror-group is small, non-religious, and headed by a single charismatic leader--none of which is true for the one we care about: Al Qaeda).

If you don't have time to read the study, Zach Beauchamp Voxsplains:
"[B]ureaucratic" groups have something resembling an org chart. They may be loosely organized at the lower levels, but there's something like a command structure, division of labor, clear assignment of responsibilities, and the like. Violent extremism run by MBAs, essentially. 
Jordan makes a compelling case that the Obama administration is treating al-Qaeda as a charismatic group — hence the big focus on killing its top leaders, which means using drones — when she argues that is in fact a bureaucratic group, for which targeting individual leaders is a lot less useful.
In one sense she's right: large established, bureaucratic organizations do survive changes in top management in ways that small ones don't--however, The Omnivore wonders if she's ignoring some key elements of the argument. See, The Omnivore doesn't know a lot about terrorist operations--but The Omnivore does know a hell of a lot about large-scale projects and big-ass organizations.

Maybe in academia when you replace the dean of Political Science life goes on. When you take out a major project's executive team though? Nearly guaranteed failure.

Let's take a look at the argument for targeted high-level killing even if it won't collapse the organization:
  • Losses are expensive even if not fatal
  • The key thing we are worried about from Al Qaeda is large-scale 9/11-style attacks. Loss of top management makes those a lot less likely to succeed

Turnover, Especially At The Top, Is Costly

The result of a drone strike, in Jordan's terms, isn't knocking out the foundations of a 'company' (our Violent, Extremist, MBAs)--it's employee turnover. Employee turnover is, as anyone in 'the industry'--that is, any industry, can tell you expensive:
In terms of the breakdown, here's what some of the costs are:
  • Cost of hiring a new person (advertising, interviewing, screening, hiring)
  • Cost of onboarding a new person (training, management time)
  • Lost productivity (a new person may take 1-2 years to reach the productivity of an existing person)
  • Lost engagement (other employees who see high turnover disengage and lose productivity)
  • Customer service and errors (new employees take longer and are often less adept at solving problems). In healthcare this may result in much higher error rates, illness, and other very expensive costs (which are not seen by HR)
  • Training cost (over 2-3 years you likely invest 10-20% of an employee's salary or more in training, that is gone)
  • Cultural impact (whenever someone leaves others take time to ask "why?").
The closer to the top that turnover happens, the more costly it is.

Big Terror doesn't recruit the same way that normal enterprises do (try hiring bomb-makers on LinkedIn--they don't even have a drop-down option for that!) but the results may be similar. For one thing, the idea that all executives are created equal is absurd to anyone in business. For another thing, recruiting to a criminal organization has 'costs' in security an ordinary company can't imagine (attempts to get recruited into AQ in the United States, for example, are the quickest way to get in contact with an FBI agent!).

We should also note that lost productivity, engagement, and unforced errors by newbies all apply to AQ the same way they apply to anything else.

Let's especially look at the 'cultural impact' bullet point. For a normal company that impact is other workers asking 'why'd they leave,' we can assume that the paranoia-cost of sudden-death by drone is significantly larger than some disgruntled water-cooler chatter.

Finally, a question for Jordan is: if the organization is not incurring the costs of executive turnover, will it use the resources it saves in a way that makes them more dangerous to us? How could the answer be anything other than 'Yes.'?

Decapitation Degrades Effectiveness

Jordan does ask if there's a loss of effectiveness in terror organizations as a result of decapitation. Her conclusion is 'not really.' She shows graphs of # of attacks and their lethality against decapitations. Sometimes attacks decrease following the loss of leaders. Sometimes they increase. In the case of Hamas, she does note:
This dramatic increase indicates that Hamas was not impacted by four years of sustained decapitation attempts and in fact became stronger. While the number of attacks increased, figures 4 and 6 show that the casualty rate decreased significantly after 2001. Byman makes a similar point; he claims that after continual decapitations Hamas carried out more, but less lethal, attacks. 104 While Hamas’ attacks became less dangerous over time, the huge increase in the number of attacks indicates that not only was Hamas able to continue its activities in the face of repeated attacks to its leadership, it gained strength as the intifada continued.
Basically, Hamas increased its volume of attacks--to make up for less effective operations.

However, this is exactly what the United States should want--in fact, that phenomena is a key element of the success of the drone war.

What does The Omnivore mean? It means that for the United States, degrading Al Qaeda's ability to:

  • Project power across boarders and oceans --and--
  • Carry out large-scale projects that require planning and coordination
Are more important than simply trying to strike a death-blow against Big Terror.

Degrading Al Qaeda's Ability to Project Power

The vast majority of terrorists operate within the country whose government they are attacking. In other cases, such as the IRA against England, they are either close by or are tightly integrated culturally. With Al Qaeda vs. The US, on the other hand, Al Qaeda acts more like an enemy army. They have / had base-camps set up in other countries. They must operate across oceans and boarders without easy access to identification credentials that will allow them into their target-zone. They share no cultural connection and have very different backgrounds than even American Muslims.

This has, in turn, led to Al Qaeda focusing on the Middle Eastern region as its primary area of operations as it has been degraded by war. Here's a graph of civilian causalities in Iraq:

 Here's a graph of Bin Laden (and therefore, largely) Al Qaeda's popularity over the same time frame:
See The Big Drop 2005-2006?
Correlation is not causation--but in this case?
A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center indicated that positive views of Osama bin Laden have significantly declined across the Middle East and Asia between 2001 and 2010, including in Indonesia, Jordan, Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt and Lebanon. In addition, there has been widespread opposition to al-Qaeda’s ideology and tactics among conservative Islamic groups, especially al-Qaeda’s practice of killing civilians. Public opposition of al-Qaeda, especially from legitimate Muslim religious leaders, needs to be better encouraged, supported and publicised.
Al Qaeda's lack of capability across oceans--owed in part to its disruption by the drone war (we cannot also discount the freezing of monetary assets, denying them a state-sponsored base of operations in Afghanistan, and the concentrated political weight of the west) has forced them into a local-operation mode where their attacks incur a very high costs on themselves.

But even more important than causing them to 'go local' is the drone war's ability to disrupt complicated operations.

Degrading Large Scale Operational Capabilities

 Ground fighters don't need a lot by way of executive coordination to carry out AK-47 style attacks. Asymmetric forces (guerrilla style troops) enjoy many logistical advantages over conventional ground armies. For example, they don't need base-camps (they just go home). They can go to the local populace for supplies (conventional forces must carry gear and run supply-lines to re-supply their troops). Guerrilla armies get to choose when and where to attack: conventional forces must distribute their defensive units more or less evenly--and so on.

On the other hand, operations like 9/11, the Times Square car-bomb, and other cross-boarder causality style attacks do require executive talent. They require recruitment (of Americans) or getting operatives inside the country. Both are difficult and, often, expensive.

They require secure communications and safety guarantees (you have to make sure your would-be bomber isn't taking the money you sent him to buy the bomb and going to Bermuda). They require a knowledge of how the west works that is often difficult to come by (and impossible for the average foot-soldier to acquire).

Attacks like 9/11 require education and special training. In short, these are long-term, large scale projects. They even tend to have an element of overseas 'outsourcing.' Anyone who works in enterprise scale business is nodding along right now: These things are hard to pull off.

The Drone War is targeting people who make these things happen. In some cases, these are people with special skills like al-Asiri (Yemen's wizard bomb-maker who was targeted, but not killed, in a drone-assisted operation earlier this year) and Al-Awlaki (an American-born Al Qaeda propagandist who was instrumental in the Ft. Hood shootings). Removing unique, high-level assets is a key part of the strategy.

Beyond just targeting people with special skills, however, disrupting management itself is a big deal. Any project of scale (which in this case is any attack targeting the American homeland) will require leadership and management support to carry off. Killing leaders badly disrupts this, causing, almost definitionally, a 'management-failure.' Even if this isn't sufficient to kill the organization it'll have a pretty good chance of killing the project(s) they were working on.
Project Management Dying In A Hellfire Missile Strike Probably Counts As 'Problems.' Also, Maybe, 'Technical Issues'


Despite The Omnivore's feelings that drone attacks are degrading the capabilities that we (Americans) care about, that is no reason to put the issue to bed. Some analysis of Israeli targeted killing of suicide bombers suggests that arrests may be more effective than lethal 'hits.'  The key thing to keep in mind about America's drone attacks is this: If not drones, then what? The reason we use long-flying aircraft (drones) in Yemen is because the targets are well beyond the reach of any conventional police force. Unlike Israel, arresting these targets is simply not an option. Fantasies about super-hero special forces units don't help either: sending in people to capture AQ's senior management won't work.

More conventional attacks (human-piloted aircraft) aren't any better: drones, due to their extensive sensors, expanded communications capabilities, and long loiter times (they don't have to carry humans or their life-support gear), get a better look at what's going on and provide that analysis directly to analysts than any human-carrying airplane could. A human touch would either involve ground forces or would be more indiscriminate, not less.

Objections to the drone war need to discuss alternatives.

Finally, we have to keep in mind that the symbolism of the drone war itself is driving a lot of discussion. Drones are the physical representation of what a lot of people hate most about America: distant, dominant, high-tech, arrogant, and implacable. They make the cost of war cheaper than conventional battle--and if your position is that you don't like war (no matter if it is 'just') then you're not going to like drones. This 'symbology made flesh' colors a lot of the debate even if it isn't explicit and losing sight of that can obscure everything else.

Read Vox's: 15 FUNSettling Facts About Drones

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