The Strategic Downside to Drone Attacks
In the United States, giving aid and comfort to the enemy is a serious offense, but America’s armed drone program, while it kills a lot of bad guys, also helps generate new recruits to replace them.
In early May 2023, the Pentagon announced a drone attack killed a “senior al-Qaeda leader” in Syria. On 18 May, the same day Syria president Bashar al-Assad arrived at the Arab League meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the Pentagon was forced to admit it may have killed the wrong guy. The “wrong guy” was Lotfi Hassan Misto, a 51-year-old sheep herder and father of ten who was tending his flock.
But the Pentagon wasn’t giving up so easy as it insisted: “Though we believe the strike did not kill the original target, we believe the person to be al-Qaeda.”
After a mistake like this, al-Assad may be excused for thinking he is on a divinely-ordained mission. He didn’t even need to wax eloquent at the Arab League meeting about American perfidy and brutality; all he had to do was read the news as it came off the wire.
Days before al-Assad’s triumphant arrival in Jeddah, the Brown University Cost of War Project announced an estimated 4.5 million people died in the post 9-11 wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, among others. Al-Assad and his host, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, are responsible for many of those deaths but America’s precision, high-tech drones command more attention, especially when, as is often the case, they kill the wrong guy.
A bad man in a movie said, “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.” Many of the helpless people in the countries where America went to war after 9-11 agree with the bad man.
The killing of Lotfi Hassan Misto will bring to mind the America’s shambolic retreat from Afghanistan, capped by the drone killing of ten members of a family, including seven children, when the U.S. forces attacked who they thought was an Islamic State facilitator, a rushed revenge attack justified as a “righteous strike” by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General 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 Islamic State facilitator was based, despite tracking Mr. Ahmadi all day as he drove around Kabul.
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, that fact that his next promotion may be delayed six months doesn’t seem like justice. But if Russia or Iran screw up, and they did when they shot down flights MH17 and PS752, the U.S. demands a trial at The Hague and imposes new rounds of sanctions.
The military’s stock explanation after every accidental killing is “mistakes were made, but no one did anything wrong.” “Regrettably” will be sprinkled throughout the press release about the findings of the official investigation (which will never see the light of day), a word salad that will leave the victims’ survivors likely thinking the U.S. is using its laws to avoid justice.
The investigation will be referred to the operational commanders who will require some extra training for some lower ranks, then cite the Privacy Act so the offenders will be forever anonymous. In the hands of a decent lawyer, the “mistakes were made” investigation will bind the hands of any commander who thinks real accountability is justified.
So, once again, America’s intelligence apparatus – all-seeing, but unknowing – misidentified as a terrorist leader an innocent family man minding his own business. Several drones, and layers of analysts and reviewers – dozens of people – from Syria to Nevada, were involved and they blew it. The drone operators may be feeling stress but, after this many mistakes, does anyone care?
After an accidental killing, 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.
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 groups like the Islamic State, we may have to admit that while they are 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 15 October 2010, but in the process killing 128 unlucky people, 13 of them children.
Former CIA officer John Kiriakou admitted, “Well the truth of the matter is that the drone program is probably the most potent recruiting tool that foreign terrorist groups have…there are people in countries all over the region – not just the Middle East but South Asia and the Horn of Africa – that otherwise would never have had reason to take up arms against us and did so solely because of the drone program.”
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.
In the case of Lotfi Hassan Misto, the drone attack may be helping to achieve something thought well-nigh impossible: the rehabilitation of Bashar al-Assad. As thanks, perhaps Assad can send the Pentagon a tasteful gift, maybe a silver picture frame with a signed picture of he and the Missus.
And America’s drone attacks will prompt asymmetric responses that will be called “terrorism,” justifying even more drone strikes, and more responses, ad nauseum.
The resulting Pentagon bureaucratic to-and-fro will result in an even more detailed pre-strike checklist, but the cat is out of the bag and, aside from its evaporating moral authority, the U.S. no longer has the luxury of air superiority, ironically due to the drone technology it has advanced.
James Durso (@james_durso) is a regular commentator on foreign policy and national security matters. Mr. Durso served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years and has worked in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.
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