I have in this space previously argued that “hearts and minds” approaches to counterrorism and counterinsurgency are superior in many cases to those based on military force, even taking into account the incredible expertise and professionalism of our armed forces. The planned response to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as presented by the president on Sept. 10, places too much emphasis on military force and risks the sort of negative outcome suggested by satirists.
The situation in Iraq and Syria is of course complex, but it has one particularly salient feature: There is a substantial constituency in both countries that views ISIS as preferable to its alternatives and offers the group either tacit or material support. Without this support, ISIS is a collection of terrorists with arms inferior to those of local militaries which has nowhere to hide and no promise of significant expansion. With this support it is a de facto state. The distinction between a nongovernmental actor and one that holds territory like a state is crucial.
Should the U.S. use an expanded campaign of drone strikes in Iraq to help push back the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)? Among the many issues this question raises is the practical one: Are they effective in reducing attacks?
On the surface it would seem that they are, in that they enable the removal of potentially high-value targets with minimal risk to our troops. Looking a little deeper, though, reveals some problems. Many are discussed in a recent report from the Stimson Center, which suggests that heavy use of drone strikes “risks increasing instability and escalating conflicts.”
I’ll open my first contribution with a confession: I chose a deliberately provocative title. Though of course I did this to draw attention, the statement is nevertheless true.
Before delving into why, let’s ask an easier question: Why is the title provocative? In other words, why would we expect military force to work in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency? The reason, I believe, is that in both terrorism and insurgency there are armed, organized people trying to kill us. This recalls war, and anything short of a show of military force in war smacks of appeasement. Even if a settlement is sought, force acts as a signal of strength. And without force, an enemy comparable to us in strength can run right over us.