The Skeptics

Drones, Special Operations and Whimsical Wars

Asked last week on 60 Minutes how many shooting wars the United States is in, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta took a moment to answer. He eventually said we are going after Al Qaeda in Pakistan and its “nodes” in Somalia, Yemen and North Africa. Somehow, he left out the indefinite war we have going in Afghanistan.

It’s no wonder that Panetta can’t keep track of the wars he’s supposed to manage. On top of Afghanistan and the drone campaigns, twelve thousand U.S. special-operations forces are distributed around dozens of countries, increasingly outside declared war zones, where they train foreign militaries, collect intelligence and occasionally launch lethal raids. As just reported in the Washington Post, some of these forces are now operating a dozen bases across Northern Africa, where their activities include overseeing contractors flying surveillance aircraft. Despite the Obama administration’s claims of great progress in fighting Al Qaeda, the global shadow war shows no signs of abating.

The official rationale for using force across the world is that Al Qaeda is global. But that’s true only thanks to a capacious definition of Al Qaeda that imposes a sense of false unity of disparate groups. The always-overrated remnant of the organization that sponsored the 9/11 attacks barely exists anymore, even in Pakistan. Our counterterrorism efforts are directed mostly against others: terrorists that take up Al Qaeda’s name and desire to kill Westerners but have limited links to the real McCoy, as in Yemen and North Africa, and insurgents friendly to jihadists but mostly consumed by local disputes, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan, Al Shabaab in Somalia and Al Qaeda’s Islamist allies in southern Yemen. Like the phony communist monolith in the Cold War, the myth of a unified, global “Al Qaeda” makes actions against vaguely linked entities—many with no obvious interest in the United States—seem a coherent campaign against globe trotting menace bent on our destruction.

The real reason we are fighting so much these days is that war is too easy. International and domestic restraints on the use of U.S. military power are few. And unrestrained power tends to be exercised. Presidents can use it whimsically, at least until they do something costly that creates a backlash and wakes up public opposition. Drones and special-operations forces made this problem worse.