Forget Drones. The Real Problem Is “War Without Boundaries”

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Let’s ignore, for a moment, the debate over killing civilians and assassinating American citizens with armed drones.

Let’s hold off on wondering whether these drones create more enemies than they kill.

Instead, let’s focus on the context in which we’re using them, and why it’s problematic.

In the Washington Post last week, Mark Jacobson called armed drones “the weapons of choice for today’s battlefield without boundaries.” For The Daily Telegraph, Con Coughlin wrote in favor of using drones by arguing that “al-Qaeda and its allies are waging a war against the West which knows no boundaries.”

This theme of a global battlefield has become common and accepted. And what Jacobson, Coughlin, and others are saying, of course, is partially true: that terrorists and gangsters are not confined by lines on a map. But somewhere along the way, we redefined the words war and battlefield.

Let’s take a step back and re-examine what this means.

The fact is, that just because someone, somewhere, with a gun hates the United States, that does not make his or her location a “battlefield” where we can employ military force at will. Just because an ideologue with a webcam wants to harm American interests, it does not mean we are at “war” with him. Such an interpretation is far too elastic, and will place the U.S. in a constant state of warfare (arguably, as it already has).

By fighting without boundaries, the current conflict has become insidious and endless. We’re executing what are essentially police actions under the auspices of a military battle. We’re going after individual criminals and calling it a “war.”

This is neither sustainable nor sensible. Because in reality, this is not a war, and these are not battlefields. I’ve been on a battlefield and I’ve lived on a drone base in Pakistan. These are hunting expeditions at best.

At this point, it’s not clear to the American taxpayer who we’re pursuing, or what we’re getting out of it. Osama bin Laden’s body was dumped into the Indian Ocean nearly two years ago. Most of his colleagues are dead or in prison. The second graders who listened to George W. Bush read The Pet Goat on 9/11 are now in college.

Yet we remain in what we think is a war, bleeding ourselves dry, by policing al Qaeda’s remnants, copycats, and franchisees with military force—creating new enemies along the way.

To what benefit?

We’re not even sure.

We could spend decades in an unbounded war, launching drone strike after drone strike, and we could justify it by saying, “See, there haven’t been any attacks on New York lately.”

But is that really how we want to live? Is there no alternative?

Just over five years ago, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates delivered a speech at Kansas State University.  He talked about “soft power” and said “one of the most important lessons of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that military success is not sufficient to win: economic development, institution-building and the rule of law, promoting internal reconciliation, good governance, providing basic services to the people, training and equipping indigenous military and police forces, strategic communications, and more—these, along with security, are essential ingredients for long-term success.”

These tasks should be our main effort now—not global aerial assassinations without trial.  Because we’re paying an awfully high price—in terms of our reputation—to get a few mid-level terrorists in remote locations.

Of course, when these terrorists or gangsters or warlords collect in one place, when they are offered state shelter by the hundreds or thousands, when they are poised to attack the continental United States, then—and only then—we go to war.

If you’ve been fighting for more than 11 years, and you haven’t won yet, then you’re doing it wrong.

Gates was right—drone strikes will never be sufficient to win. To get back on the right track, we must begin by placing some boundaries on our military effort, both geographical and chronological. And that starts by acknowledging we’re no longer in a global war—if we ever were.

Brandon Friedman is the author of The War I Always Wanted.  He is a vice president at Fleishman-Hillard in Washington, D.C.  Follow him on Twitter at @BFriedmanDC.


Of course, drones have plenty of non-privacy obstructing, advantageous uses. They're ridiculously advanced pieces of (semi) weaponry. But the technology itself needs regulation asap. Lawmakers can't keep up with advancements in unmanned aerial surveillance -- the technology is just too fast. And hey, what about the Fourth Amendment?


US government try to live with their head cover in sand and with no morale,all the first is initiated by USA for example first country use the drone to operate over other country all over the world and is the first country to authorized cyber attack on other country Iran.Why? USA think other country is not capable to do it.Once US realised the other country can do the same,then US cry for wolf.That tell you the truth why people around the world hate American

Don_Bacon 2 Like

On a world scale the targets have changed, making the AUMF obsolete.
President Obama in the SOTU:
“Today, the organization that attacked us on 9/11 is a shadow of its former self. Different al-Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups have emerged – from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa. The threat these groups pose is evolving. But to meet this threat, we don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations. Instead, we will need to help countries like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali. And, where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.”

Congress will need to act to authorize this world war:
news report
Feb 13, 2013
“There may come a time when the core al-Qaeda responsible for 9/11 doesn’t really exist anymore,” [HASC vice-chairman Mac] Thornberry told the NDIA conference, “[but] we have not yet been successful in updating the authorization for the use of military force.”


The definition of acceptable targets has varied widely.

    John Brennan: “Individuals who are a threat to the United States” (September 16, 2011)
    Department of Justice: “Senior operational leader of al-Qa’ida or an associated force” who “poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States” (November 8, 2011)
    Eric Holder: “Specific senior operational leaders of al-Qaeda and associated forces” (March 5, 2012)
    Harold Koh: “High-level al-Qaeda leaders who are planning attacks” (March 25, 2012)
    Obama: “Our goal has been to focus on al-Qaeda and to focus narrowly on those who would pose an imminent threat to the United States of America” (September 6, 2012)

But the most usual defintion seems to be  “signature strikes” . .from WaPo:
. . . “signature strikes” which would allow the agency to hit targets based solely on intelligence indicating patterns of suspicious behavior, such as imagery showing militants gathering at known al-Qaeda compounds or unloading explosives.

The practice has been a core element of the CIA’s drone program in Pakistan for several years. CIA Director David H. Petraeus has requested permission to use the tactic against the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, which has emerged as the most pressing terrorism threat to the United States, officials said.

haldonahue 2 Like

Brandon is a vet I know and respect. He is 100% correct here. We are not even fighting 'warriors or soldiers'; we are fighting garden variety racketeers and terrorists. Brandon asks; Do we want to live like this? Everyone's answer should be a resounding no. 


But he also makes a claim on what is required for success that has proved highly elusive:

"...institution-building and the rule of law, promoting internal reconciliation, good governance..." are in extremely short supply in many of these places.  Equal treatment under the law is hard enough in established democracies, now throw centuries of tribal warfare into the mix and the likelihood of reconciliation and fair play goes to near zero.  The closest we've come to leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan who promote these ideas have turned out to be corrupt, inept or both.  There's no one to back with our soft power.


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