Armed Drones in Niger Wouldn’t Be My Recommendation

AP:

The United States started arming drones in the West African nation of Niger earlier this year, according to the U.S. Africa Command.

“In coordination with the Government of Niger, U.S. Africa Command has armed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft already in Niger to improve our combined ability to respond to threats and other security issues in the region. Armed ISR aircraft began flying in early 2018,” Samantha Reho, spokeswoman for U.S. Africa Command, told The Associated Press.

The armed drones are currently deployed to Niger’s Air Base 101 in Niamey. The effort was supported by Niger, and is part of the long-term strategic partnership between the U.S. and Niger to help counter violent extremists in the region, she said.

As a matter of operational security, Reho said she could not discuss whether strikes have already been carried out by the armed drones.

Regular readers will not be surprised to hear that I do not favor the use of armed drones or policies of assassination in the Sahel (or anywhere, really). I understand the main argument for their use, I think – namely, the idea that killing key bad guys will make a bad situation less bad. But evidence from elsewhere seems to suggest that things often don’t go that way. For example, much has been written in a critical vein about the U.S. drone campaign in Yemen. To take one critic’s comments, here is Jillian Schwedler, from 2015, discussing Yemen:

I would like to focus on different metric: the longer-term impact of the drone strikes on the legitimacy and attractiveness of al-Qaida’s message in Yemen and its ability to recruit among Yemenis themselves. Drone strikes are widely reported in local media and online and are a regular topic of discussion at weekly qat chewing sessions across the country. Cell phone calls spike after drone strikes, which are also widely reported on Twitter and Facebook. The strikes are wildly unpopular, with attitudes toward the United States increasingly negative. An Arab Barometer survey carried out in 2007 found that 73.5 percent of Yemenis believed that U.S. involvement in the region justified attacks on Americans everywhere.

[…]

The dual effect of U.S. acceleration in drone strikes since 2010 and of their continued use during the “transitional” period that was intended to usher in more accountable governance has shown Yemenis how consistently their leaders will cede sovereignty and citizens’ security to the United States. While Yemenis may recognize that AQAP does target the United States, the hundreds of drone strikes are viewed as an excessive response. The weak sovereignty of the Yemeni state is then treated as the “problem” that has allowed AQAP to expand, even as state sovereignty has been directly undermined by U.S. policy – both under President Ali Abdullah Salih and during the transition. American “security” is placed above Yemeni security, with Yemeni sovereignty violated repeatedly in service of that cause. Regardless of what those in Washington view as valid and legitimate responses to “terrorist” threats, the reality for Yemenis is that the United States uses drone strikes regularly to run roughshod over Yemeni sovereignty in an effort to stop a handful of attacks – most of them failed – against U.S. targets. The fact that corrupt Yemeni leaders consent to the attacks makes little difference to public opinion.

It’s not hard to imagine a similar set of interactions playing out in the Sahel – strikes that feed both anti-Americanism and contempt/mistrust for national states that willingly cede their already limited sovereignty.

I also question whether it’s really worth it to kill the top guys, especially the smart ones. Is it better to have a smart enemy, or a dumb one? It might seem intuitive that it’s better to fight a dumb guy, but dumb guys can be vicious and impetuous and if they sometimes act against their own long-term interests, their vicious and short-sighted moves can nevertheless make everything worse for everyone, including you. Then, too, dumb guys can be hard to talk to when it eventually comes time for jaw-jaw instead of war-war. Dumb guys also sometimes have a harder time holding coalitions together, so maybe that means when the dumb guy takes over from the smart guy, before too long you’re dealing not just with one smart guy but with the new dumb guy and with a couple of other guys (smart and dumb!) who didn’t want to take orders from the new dumb guy. Does that make your life better or worse? Or maybe you never get the top guy, because his whole life now turns into hiding from you and bragging about how you can’t get him, so now you content yourself with killing second-tier figures, but somehow guys keep signing up for that role. And then all of a sudden you’re killing quite a few people, and you make mistakes and kill a lot of civilians, and then you find yourself in something like the situation that Schwedler describes above, with broad swaths of the civilian population turning against both you and your “partner” governments.

So my two cents is, don’t start the cycle in the Sahel. And if you’ve started, stop it now.

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