In Yemen, drones can work if they're part of a larger strategy, but not if they are the strategy.
U.S. military handout image of a predator drone. (Reuters)
The public debate about the American use of drones continues unabated, focused mostly on the morality of drone warfare. Sunday, for example, the New York Times ran one stories on the moral case for drones and one on the moral hazard they represent.
These two angles to the debate -- whether drones impose an intolerable moral hazard, or whether they allow policymakers to counter terrorism while minimizing harm -- are important. The morality of decisions that our leaders make is important, especially when there is a question of whether those decisions clash with our values. And when drones are widely reported to result in unintended civilian casualties (how many is disputed) the moral case cannot be ignored.
Apart from morality, the other side of the debate about drones is their effectiveness. There is a reasonably strong case to be made that the zealous use of drones in Pakistan has made U.S.-Pakistani relations far worse, though whether that change matters in the long run is an open question. In Yemen, too, the use of drones has carried some evidence of political blowback -- though, again, whether that matters in the long run is unclear.
If innocent people are being killed, then the drones program needs to be effective at reducing the terror threat. Otherwise, too many innocent people are being killed for dubious results.
The effectiveness of the drones program, however, is not easy to determine. How do you assess the damage? According to some analysis, only about 500 of the reported 2500 targets of drone strikes in Pakistan have been positively identified. Many residents in Pakistan and Yemen claim that far more civilians die in drone strikes than is reported in the West; However, when PBS sent a reporter to Yemen to investigate, in part, the drone campaign, they found that many residents just assume all air strikes on suspected terrorist sites come from drones (at least some of those strikes come from Yemeni aircraft, not drones).
Broader effects about terrorism can be measured, though that kind of analysis is limited. In Yemen, analysts dispute whether or not the drone campaign itself has contributed to the expansion of al-Qaeda there. Iona Craig, a journalist based in Yemen, has reported through interviews that drones have "swelled al-Qaeda's ranks." Yemeni politicians also argue that drones help al-Qaeda, as does the Washington Post. Christopher Swift, a lawyer and academic based in DC, interviewed local elders in Yemen in May; he categorically argues that drones do not have any negative social effects there.
While Swift's report (disclosure: he is a friend) is a minority view among reports out of Yemen, it cannot be discounted out of hand: he is accurately reporting that the Yemenis he spoke to believe there are no negative effects of the drone campaign. But can the overall behavior of al-Qaeda in Yemen give us lessons?
Over the last three years, the reported size of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has about tripled. AQAP has successfully stormed and occupied entire towns (through its clever rebranding as Ansar al-Shariah). The long-serving dictatorship more or less collapsed under the weight of mass protests, though the dictator's replacement is more of a stooge than a real change.
Yemen has faced increasing challenges and upheaval, in other words. During this same period of time, U.S. drones, as well as Yemeni and American aircraft, pounded the desert towns where AQAP thrives, killing dozens of suspected militants and fewer (though no one knows how many fewer) civilians. It is difficult to make the case that -- whatever the ultimate mixture of militants and civilians, and whatever the effects on Yemeni society -- the use of drones has contributed meaningfully to Yemen's stability or to neutralizing AQAP. (There is a counterfactual that, without drones, the problem with be worse, but it's impossible to really say.)
In recent months, however, Yemen has seen some of its fortunes shift. The Yemeni army retook the AQAP-occupied towns of Ja'ar and Zinjibar, which AQAP had held up to PBS as an example of its reach and power. While AQAP has responded with a new wave of violence, the Yemeni army is, for the time being at least, holding onto its territory.
No one knows whether the defeat of AQAP's territorial ambitions is permanent. But what the recent offensives in Yemen's south do show is that, whatever the effects of drones, they require effective forces on the ground to deny territory to terrorist groups.
This, then, is the lesson about how drones can be effective: they must serve a strategy. They cannot be the strategy, as they sometimes are. For too long, it seemed, the only possible response to a terrorism threat in Yemen was a drone strike (or cruise missile or air strike). U.S. intelligence agencies managed to unravel some plots if the Saudis or Brits gave them a heads up. But the only tool in the American arsenal seemed to be a drone strike: lobbing missiles at unknown people in the belief that it would lessen the threat.
What seems to have really lessened the threat, though, is ground combat: the difficult, dangerous, and expensive work of clearing towns and areas of militants and restoring legitimate government control. There is clearly a role for drones in this process of rebuilding control of an area -- most drone strikes in Afghanistan, for example, are used as close air support (though even Afghan officials do not want too many drones in their territory). Where drones become problematic is when they substitute for a broader policy of engagement: where they become the strategy, rather than serving the strategy.
The current U.S. policy in Yemen is not very strongly articulated. It is often a list of aspirations ("helping the government confront the immediate security threat represented by Al Qaida, and mitigating serious political, economic and governance issues that the country faces over the long terms, the drivers of instability") that so far has not resulted in comprehensive action from the U.S. As Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright fellow in Yemen and currently a PhD candidate at Princeton wrote last year, "U.S. policy bounced from one crisis to the next without an overarching structure."
In Yemen, we've seen that allowing the government to retake areas from AQAP can be effective at addressing the terrorist threat; the U.S. should make effective Yemeni governance its next priority. The recently announced influx of aid to Yemen is being directed almost exclusively to Yemen's security services, which have already proved capable of removing AQAP from its territory. What's missing is everything else that isn't security: immediately countering the growing malnutrition there, strengthening and expanding the good governance programs groups like NED run, and establishing a long term commitment to fortifying Yemen's shaky economy.
As a part of a comprehensive strategy to both physically and politically secure the country, there is a definite role for drones to play: one that is moral, effective, and constrained. Assuming drones are the counterterrorism strategy -- an impression one can get reading some of the coverage of the drones program -- would be a mistake.
Orr: “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Your Grace. My name is Tyrion Lannister.”
At last! I know I speak for quite a few book readers when I say that pretty much the only thing that kept me going through the eleventy thousand discursive, digressive pages of George R. R. Martin’s fifth tome, A Dance With Dragons, was the promise of Tyrion finally meeting up with Daenerys Targaryen. And, of course, after eleventy thousand pages, it never happened. So on behalf of myself and everyone else who sacrificed sleep, work, family, and friends waiting for this moment, let me say thank you, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. Bonus points for what seemed to be a cameo by Strong Belwas (a book character who was written out of the show) as the nameless fighter who freed Tyrion from his chains.
New research confirms what they say about nice guys.
Smile at the customer. Bake cookies for your colleagues. Sing your subordinates’ praises. Share credit. Listen. Empathize. Don’t drive the last dollar out of a deal. Leave the last doughnut for someone else.
Sneer at the customer. Keep your colleagues on edge. Claim credit. Speak first. Put your feet on the table. Withhold approval. Instill fear. Interrupt. Ask for more. And by all means, take that last doughnut. You deserve it.
Follow one of those paths, the success literature tells us, and you’ll go far. Follow the other, and you’ll die powerless and broke. The only question is, which is which?
Of all the issues that preoccupy the modern mind—Nature or nurture? Is there life in outer space? Why can’t America field a decent soccer team?—it’s hard to think of one that has attracted so much water-cooler philosophizing yet so little scientific inquiry. Does it pay to be nice? Or is there an advantage to being a jerk?
The country’s political dysfunction has undermined all efforts to build an effective fighting force.
The Obama Administration has run out of patience with Iraq’s Army. On Sunday, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union” to discuss the recent fall of Ramadi, one of Iraq’s major cities, to ISIS. Despite possessing substantial advantages in both numbers and equipment, he said, the Iraqi military were unable to prevent ISIS forces from capturing the city.
“That says to me and, I think, to most of us, that we have an issue with the will of the Iraqis to fight ISIL and defend themselves.”
Carter’s frustrations are shared by his boss. When asked about the war against ISIS in a recent interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, President Obama said that “if the Iraqis are not willing to fight for the security of their country, then we cannot do it for them.”
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Some fans are complaining that Zack Snyder’s envisioning of the Man of Steel is too grim—but it’s less a departure than a return to the superhero’s roots.
Since the official teaser trailer for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice debuted online in April, fans and critics alike have been discussing the kind of Superman Zack Snyder is going to depict in his Man of Steel sequel. The controversy stems from Snyder’s decision to cast Superman as a brooding, Dark Knight-like character, who cares more about beating up bad guys than saving people. The casting split has proved divisive among Superman fans: Some love the new incarnation, citing him as an edgier, more realistic version of the character.
But Snyder’s is a different Superman than the one fans grew up with, and many have no problem expressing their outrage over it. Even Mark Waid, the author of Superman: Birthright (one of the comics the original film is based on), voiced his concern about Man of Steel’s turn toward bleakness when it came out in 2013:
Rebel groups that employ terror in civil wars seldom win or gain concessions—but they tend to prolong conflicts, a new paper finds.
Nearly 14 years into the war on terror, there are signs of terrorism all around us, from Memorial Day tributes to the victims of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the raging congressional debate over reauthorizing the Patriot Act.
Yet some of the most basic information about terrorism remains surprisingly elusive. For example: Does it work?
There have been some attempts at answering the question, but many of them are either largely anecdotal or geographically constrained. Other studies have focused on international terror. But as political scientist Page Fortna of Columbia University notes, the vast majority of terrorism isn’t transnational—it’s localized, utilized in the context of civil wars and fights for territorial control. Many of the intractable conflicts the U.S. is involved in today fit this definition: the fighting between ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other groups in Iraq and Syria; the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria; al-Shabab’s terrorism in Somalia and Kenya; Yemen’s civil war; the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Is terrorism an effective tool when used in those conflicts?
Changing neighborhoods may be a class issue, but in America, that means it's also a racial one.
Ask city-dwellers to describe what, precisely, gentrification is you’ll get an array of answers. The term is a murky one, used to describe the many different ways through which money and development enter poorer or less developed neighborhoods, changing them both economically and demographically.
For some, gentrification and gentrifiers are inherently bad—pushing out residents who are often older, poorer, and darker than the neighborhood’s new occupants. For others, a new group of inhabitants brings the possibility of things residents have long hoped for, better grocery stores, new retail, renovations, and an overall revitalization that often eludes low-income neighborhoods.
In an interview, the U.S. president ties his legacy to a pact with Tehran, argues ISIS is not winning, warns Saudi Arabia not to pursue a nuclear-weapons program, and anguishes about Israel.
On Tuesday afternoon, as President Obama was bringing an occasionally contentious but often illuminating hour-long conversation about the Middle East to an end, I brought up a persistent worry. “A majority of American Jews want to support the Iran deal,” I said, “but a lot of people are anxiety-ridden about this, as am I.” Like many Jews—and also, by the way, many non-Jews—I believe that it is prudent to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of anti-Semitic regimes. Obama, who earlier in the discussion had explicitly labeled the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, an anti-Semite, responded with an argument I had not heard him make before.
“Look, 20 years from now, I’m still going to be around, God willing. If Iran has a nuclear weapon, it’s my name on this,” he said, referring to the apparently almost-finished nuclear agreement between Iran and a group of world powers led by the United States. “I think it’s fair to say that in addition to our profound national-security interests, I have a personal interest in locking this down.”
Hundreds of years ago, ignorance about decomposition and disease sparked fears that the dead returned to drink the blood of the living.
In 1846, a man named Horace Ray died of tuberculosis in Griswold, Connecticut. Within the next six years, two of his grown sons died of the same disease. When yet another son fell ill two years later, Ray’s family and friends could think of only one explanation: The dead sons were somehow feeding on and sickening the living one—from the afterlife. In an effort to keep the remaining son from getting even worse, they exhumed the dead sons’ bodies and burned them.
This wasn’t an isolated incident. In 1874, a Rhode Island man named William Rose dug up his own daughter’s body and burned her heart, and in 1875 a victim of “consumption,” as TB was called then, had her lungs burned posthumously for good measure.
Advocates say that a guaranteed basic income can lead to more creative, fulfilling work. The question is how to fund it.
Scott Santens has been thinking a lot about fish lately. Specifically, he’s been reflecting on the aphorism, “If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he eats for life.” What Santens wants to know is this: “If you build a robot to fish, do all men starve, or do all men eat?”
Santens is 37 years old, and he’s a leader in the basic income movement—a worldwide network of thousands of advocates (26,000 on Reddit alone) who believe that governments should provide every citizen with a monthly stipend big enough to cover life’s basic necessities. The idea of a basic income has been around for decades, and it once drew support from leaders as different as Martin Luther King Jr. and Richard Nixon. But rather than waiting for governments to act, Santens has started crowdfunding his own basic income of $1,000 per month. He’s nearly halfway to his his goal.