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.
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.
I spent a year in Tromsø, Norway, where the “Polar Night” lasts all winter—and where rates of seasonal depression are remarkably low. Here’s what I learned about happiness and the wintertime blues.
Located over 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Tromsø, Norway, is home to extreme light variation between seasons. During the Polar Night, which lasts from November to January, the sun doesn’t rise at all. Then the days get progressively longer until the Midnight Sun period, from May to July, when it never sets. After the midnight sun, the days get shorter and shorter again until the Polar Night, and the yearly cycle repeats.
So, perhaps understandably, many people had a hard time relating when I told them I was moving there.
“I could never live there,” was the most common response I heard. “That winter would make me so depressed,” many added, or “I just get so tired when it’s dark out.”
But the Polar Night was what drew me to Tromsø in the first place.
For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?
1. Youngstown, U.S.A.
The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.
A day after default, there's no deal in sight—and Greece’s defiant prime minister says Sunday's referendum will still happen.
July 1, 2015 11:01 a.m.
The referendum will go on, says Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. Yesterday, there was doubt about whether Sunday’s referendum—where Greeks would decide whether to accept its creditors conditions—would still happen. If Greece had managed to secure a third bailout, or an extension from the IMF, there would theoretically be no need for the referendum.
Neither of those two things happened, and Tsipras addressed the nation on Greek television an hour ago to confirm that the referendum will take place. He’s also not backing down from his original position, strongly urging Greeks to vote “no.” Tsipras has since tweeted 18 updates on his position, including this: “You're being blackmailed & urged to vote Yes to all of institutions' measures without any solution to exiting the crisis.”
The social network learns more about its users than they might realize.
Facebook, you may have noticed, turned into a rainbow-drenched spectacle following the Supreme Court’s decision Friday that same-sex marriage is a Constitutional right.
By overlaying their profile photos with a rainbow filter, Facebook users began celebrating in a way we haven't seen since March 2013, when 3 million peoplechanged their profile images to a red equals sign—the logo of the Human Rights Campaign—as a way to support marriage equality. This time, Facebook provided a simple way to turn profile photos rainbow-colored. More than 1 million people changed their profile in the first few hours, according to the Facebook spokesperson William Nevius, and the number continues to grow.
“This is probably a Facebook experiment!” joked the MIT network scientist Cesar Hidalgo on Facebook yesterday. “This is one Facebook study I want to be included in!” wrote Stacy Blasiola, a communications Ph.D. candidate at the University of Illinois, when she changed her profile.
People labeled “smart” at a young age don’t deal well with being wrong. Life grows stagnant.
At whatever agesmart people develop the idea that they are smart, they also tend to develop vulnerability around relinquishing that label. So the difference between telling a kid “You did a great job” and “You are smart” isn’t subtle. That is, at least, according to one growing movement in education and parenting that advocates for retirement of “the S word.”
The idea is that when we praise kids for being smart, those kids think: Oh good, I'm smart. And then later, when those kids mess up, which they will, they think: Oh no, I'm not smart after all. People will think I’m not smart after all. And that’s the worst. That’s a risk to avoid, they learn.“Smart” kids stand to become especially averse to making mistakes, which are critical to learning and succeeding.
The untold story of the improbable campaign that finally tipped the U.S. Supreme Court.
On May 18, 1970, Jack Baker and Michael McConnell walked into a courthouse in Minneapolis, paid $10, and applied for a marriage license. The county clerk, Gerald Nelson, refused to give it to them. Obviously, he told them, marriage was for people of the opposite sex; it was silly to think otherwise.
Baker, a law student, didn’t agree. He and McConnell, a librarian, had met at a Halloween party in Oklahoma in 1966, shortly after Baker was pushed out of the Air Force for his sexuality. From the beginning, the men were committed to one another. In 1967, Baker proposed that they move in together. McConnell replied that he wanted to get married—really, legally married. The idea struck even Baker as odd at first, but he promised to find a way and decided to go to law school to figure it out.
In 1908, photographer Lewis Hine traveled across the U.S. to document child laborers and their workplaces. His portraits were used by reformers to drive legislation that would protect young workers or prohibit their employment.
At the start of the 20th century, labor in America was in short supply, and laws concerning the employment of children were rarely enforced or nonexistent. While Americans at the time supported the role of children working on family farms, there was little awareness of the other forms of labor being undertaken by young hands. In 1908, photographer Lewis Hine was employed by the newly-founded National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) to document child laborers and their workplaces nationwide. His well-made portraits of young miners, mill workers, cotton pickers, cigar rollers, newsboys, pin boys, oyster shuckers, and factory workers put faces on the issue, and were used by reformers to raise awareness and drive legislation that would protect young workers or prohibit their employment. After several stalled attempts in congress, the NCLC-backed Fair Labor Standards Act passed in 1938 with child labor provisions that remain the law of the land today, barring the employment of anyone under the age of 16.
The question is at the center of the Greek crisis.
In 1961, the economist Robert Mundell published a paper laying out, per the title, “A Theory of Optimum Currency Areas.” In it, he inquired about the appropriate geographic extent of a shared unit of money. Was it the world? A country? Part of a country? A border-spanning region of, say, the western parts of the United States and Canada, with a separate currency circulating in the eastern parts of the two countries?
“It might seem at first that the question is purely academic,” he wrote, “since it hardly seems within the realm of political feasibility that national currencies would ever be abandoned in favor of any other arrangement.” But it was worth considering anyway, in part because “certain parts of the world are undergoing processes of economic integration and disintegration,” and an idea of what an “optimum currency area” would look like could help “clarify the meaning of these experiments.”
Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz are suggesting there might be ways for states and cities to nullify the justices’ ruling. They’re wrong.
The Supreme Court’s decision last week did make gay marriage legal around the nation. Unfortunately for social conservatives, it did not, however, make nullification legal around the nation.
Nullification is the historical idea that states can ignore federal laws, or pass laws that supersede them. This concept has a long but not especially honorable pedigree in U.S. history. Its origins date back to antebellum America, where Southern states tried to nullify tariffs and Northern states tried to nullify fugitive-slave laws. In the 1950s, after Brown v. Board of Education, some Southern states tried to pass laws to avoid integrating schools. It didn’t work, because nullification is not constitutional.