Belmont Club

Pattern of Death

The future of terrorism, according to John Robb, will be the story of individuals acting on their own initiative according to broadly shared narrative.  That might include attacking artists in university lecture halls who’ve had the temerity to draw ‘Mohammed’ cartoons, encouraging piracy, sowing mines and IEDs at random, or using cell phone technology to stage flash events.  Open Source Warfare is open season on everybody. According to this view the challenge comes from the grassroots.  To some extent the challenge of distributed warfare has been accepted, and war in the grassroots it is. One example of a America’s counter is the so-called “pattern of life” of life targeting, which tracks individuals, such that if a person looks persistently guilty, then he is ‘engaged’. The LA Times reports:

The CIA received secret permission to attack a wider range of targets, including suspected militants whose names are not known, as part of a dramatic expansion of its campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan’s border region, according to current and former counter-terrorism officials.

The expanded authority, approved two years ago by the Bush administration and continued by President Obama, permits the agency to rely on what officials describe as “pattern of life” analysis, using evidence collected by surveillance cameras on the unmanned aircraft and from other sources about individuals and locations.

This implicitly requires a system of persistent surveillance which can track Person A through his life; notes whether he attends a Taliban training camp, records his comings and goings, observes how often he comes along on a trip where IEDs are later observed to explode, whose cell phone records suggest bad company, etc.  Once that system finds his “pattern of life” sufficiently suggestive, some algorithm, assisted perhaps by some men on the loop, he may decide he needs to be zapped. The LA Times says such people are already being hit, and have been for a long time.  Pattern of Life hits have been a big help at keeping down the weeds. As you live, so do you die.

The new rules have transformed the program from a narrow effort aimed at killing top Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders into a large-scale campaign of airstrikes in which few militants are off-limits, as long as they are deemed to pose a threat to the U.S., the officials said.

Instead of just a few dozen attacks per year, CIA-operated unmanned aircraft now carry out multiple missile strikes each week against safe houses, training camps and other hiding places used by militants in the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan.

As a matter of policy, CIA officials refuse to comment on the covert drone program. Those who are willing to discuss it on condition of anonymity refuse to describe in detail the standards of evidence they use for drone strikes, saying only that strict procedures are in place to ensure that militants are being targeted. But officials say their surveillance yields so much detail that they can watch for the routine arrival of particular vehicles or the characteristics of individual people.

Smile, you’re on Candid Camera. And then surveillance tracks those vehicles and track the vehicles that associate with those vehicles. And on it goes. The result is a grassroots profile of the terrorist community as complete as database joins can make them. The demand for continuous surveillance is what’s behind a proposal to deploy stratospheric UAVs — blimps which can operate at the edge of space, above winds which can blow them about, and remain on station for months on end, watching, watching and watching. But the watching is not purposeless. Intelligence is the factor which limits how many targets can be engaged. Improve the intelligence and the number of known targets go up. Increase the eyes and you increase the rain of missiles.  Certainly a lot more missiles have been fired under the Obama administration than ever before. The rate of fire is now one ever 3.5 days.

Missile attacks have risen steeply since Obama took office. There were an estimated 53 drone strikes in 2009, up from just over 30 in Bush’s last year, according to a website run by the New America Foundation that tracks press reports of attacks in Pakistan. Through early this month, there had been 34 more strikes this year, an average of one every 3 1/2 days, according to the site’s figures

The program has been criticized as a violation of human rights. But one criticism which is rarely heard is whether the program is moving the target list in the wrong direction. It is moving it down the chain. Suppose instead of moving down from the Taliban and al-Qaeda top leadership, it moved up? Suppose Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden were not at the top of the terrorist food chain? Why not hit the guys above them?  Hillary Clinton recently hinted that Pakistani officials were more deeply connected to terrorism than they were letting on, and that they may have been sheltering Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban leadership. On a CBS interview the Secretary of State said, “We’ve made it very clear that if — heaven-forbid — an attack like this that we can trace back to Pakistan were to have been successful, there would be very severe consequences.” This suggests that the Taliban and al-Qaeda, rather than being the Alpha and Omega of terrorism, are just proxies in a war with bigger fish.

But what would Washington do with a bigger fish if it found it with stratospheric UAVs and super databases? Would the President impose “very severe consequences”? Or on the contrary, would it find a reason to let the monster fish go in the name of maintaining “world peace”. Suppose  Hillary actually found a smoking gun linking the leadership of Pakistan to al-Qaeda? Which incentive would prevail?  Is saving 500 or 1,000 American lives worth war with Pakistan? There would arguably be a huge incentive to do nothing because of the risks of taking action against Islamabad would be so great. One example of how catching a big fish can cause problems was recently illustrated by a New York Times report that the South Korea found torpedo explosive residue on the sunken hull of its corvette, the Cheonan.  It is almost impossible to avoid concluding that North Korea torpedoed a South Korean Naval vessel. Does this mean “very severe consequences”?  God a-mighty, no.

A premeditated attack by the navy of one country upon another would normally be an act of war. But in the modern world, business as usual sees war as the ultimate money loser and political risk. So the pressures against war are enormous.  South Korea is not prepared to commence hostilities with the North, so there will be no war if Seoul can help it. Similarly, if American aerostats saw Osama Bin Laden receiving money from the President of Pakistan himself there would be a huge incentive to do absolutely nothing.

The only conceivable scenario in which the target list can be moved up instead of down is if Pakistan — or whoever — suddenly did something so awful that even Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama couldn’t overlook it. Like nuking New York. Maybe not even that. If that happened, then maybe, just maybe, the crosshairs on the UAV will be adjusted up the ladder rather than down. The implications of this dynamic is that the world may be tacitly slipping into a new species of Cold War.  The  War on Terror isn’t being fought to win, it’s being fought to keep the lid on.  The conflict will be managed, not resolved. The War will be kept within bounds, at all costs. An explosion in New York will be met by a flurry of missiles fired from robotic aircraft circling over certain countries. Tit for Tat. Corpse for corpse.  Missile for car bomb.

But unlike the Cold War, which was waged between two rational superpowers, a limited war between fanatics and rationally timid West is not necessarily stable.  The levels of violence instead of stabilizing will tend to increase. They are already trending upward. If the Times Square bombing is any indicator, then the terrorists are ramping up their campaign. And so will the American drones ramp up the response. Smaller missiles, more drones, more surveillance. But there is no natural ceiling to the escalation. That is the specter which must haunt Washington. There’s no reason why, having reached N that you shouldn’t go to N + 1.

But there’s a remedy for strategic dilemmas like that. Don’t face it: kick the can down the road. What is likely to happen is that Washington will expand the targeting list downward until it watching every hut, every Internet cafe, every prepaid cellphone, every madrassa it can.  We have Open Source Warfare and Swarming to the limit. But the core targets will may never be taken out. Why? Because that’s too dangerous. Will the target list ever expand it upward? Not unless it is forced to. Going upward is destabilizing because that’s where the elites are.

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