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.

Update on US Drone Base in Ethiopia

Last month, reports came out that the United States was building a new drone base in Ethiopia as part of a broader effort to strike targets in Somalia and Yemen. The base is already operational, and the BBC, the Washington Post, and other outlets are covering the story. As the BBC story points out, “the remotely-piloted drones [are] being used only for surveillance, and not for air strikes,” though the vehicles can be equipped with missiles and bombs if commanders choose.

Here’s an excerpt from the Post’s piece:

The Air Force has invested millions of dollars to upgrade an airfield in Arba Minch, Ethi­o­pia, where it has built a small annex to house a fleet of drones that can be equipped with Hellfire missiles and satellite-guided bombs. The Reapers began flying missions earlier this year over neighboring Somalia, where the United States and its allies in the region have been targeting al-Shabab, a militant Islamist group connected to al-Qaeda.

[…]

The Arba Minch airport expansion is still in progress but the Air Force deployed the Reapers there earlier this year, [Air Force spokesman Master Sgt. James] Fisher said. He said the drone flights “will continue as long as the government of Ethi­o­pia welcomes our cooperation on these varied security programs.”

Last month, the Ethio­pian Foreign Ministry denied the presence of U.S. drones in the country. On Thursday, a spokesman for the Ethio­pian embassy in Washington repeated that assertion.

The disconnect in rhetoric between the US military and the Ethiopian government points to the major tensions in this relationship. As I noted in my last piece, US officials said that it took years of effort to persuade Ethiopia to host the base. The lack of enthusiasm from Ethiopia’s side has persisted to the present. Ethiopia’s willingness to permit drone operations to continue may be contingent on what reactions occur in Somalia and inside Ethiopia, which is host to many ethnic Somalis and refugees from Somalia.

Somalia: US Considers Drone Strikes

The stalemate in Somalia seems more intractable than ever. Government-backed protesters march against the Islamist al Shabab militia in the streets of the capital, but the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) also faces protests from local residents. Violence in Somalia continues, but the long-awaited “Battle for Mogadishu,” pitting the TFG against al Shabab, has yet to materialize. Commenter Mogadishuman offers one view of the situation:

the battle is long overdue – the feeble TFG have been promising retaliation and defeating the Islamists but so far haven’t set foot outside their pigeon hole. Perhaps they are waiting for the American Blacks Hawks to arrive in Mogadishu before we can witness another Black hawk Down.

This gets at one of the most burning questions regarding Somalia – will the US intervene? Until recently that possibility seemed unlikely, even remote. But as the TFG proves incapable of acting on its own, moves toward a US intervention appear to be picking up steam.

In the midst of chronic logistical problems surrounding the government’s planned offensive against al Shabab, the TFG has repeatedly called for international support. So who is willing to help the TFG? Not Kenya, Somalia’s neighbor. Kenya has denied a Somali request for some 2,500 Kenyan-trained Somali troops to cross the border and join the fight. And despite Ethiopia’s occasional habit of crossing the border to fight Somali Islamists, it does not appear that Ethiopia will intervene directly in Mogadishu.

So does the TFG’s lack of regional support mean the US will step in and give direct military support to the TFG, above and beyond the aid Washington already provides?

Maybe, and the TFG would certainly welcome it. Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed has expressed a desire for US air support. Some reports say US surveillance planes are already flying over Somalia, though these reports prompted the US State Department to deny that the US has an active military role in Somalia. Now, though, the US is considering intervening – not through helicopters and ground troops, but with drones:

The Pentagon is considering dispatching surveillance drones and other limited military support for a Somali government offensive against al-Qaida-linked insurgents, U.S. officials said, part of a cautious move to increase U.S. assistance to the anarchic African nation.

U.S. diplomats are pressing Somali leaders to detail the goals of the looming assault, in order to figure out the most appropriate ways the U.S. can help.

Determined to avoid a visible American footprint on the ground or fingerprints on Somalia’s shaky government, U.S. officials are struggling to find the right balance between seizing the opportunity to take out al-Qaida insurgents there and avoiding the appearance of a U.S. occupation.

[…]

One proposal would move surveillance drones to the Horn of Africa from an island in the Seychelles, where several unarmed Reaper systems were sent last fall for counter-piracy operations in the western Indian Ocean. The move would represent a more enduring U.S. commitment, which also would be largely invisible to the population.

[…]While administration officials said that sending U.S. troops into the embattled country is not seen as a viable option, they say they are not ruling out the use of small numbers of U.S. commandos when necessary for specific operations — much as they have done in the past.

The US has conducted targeted killings in Somalia in recent months, so in a way using drones would represent nothing new. But in the context of expanding drone operations elsewhere in the region, and in the context of war between the TFG and al Shabab, US drone strikes will have a significant political as well as military impact. The Pentagon may hope to avoid leaving a “footprint” or “fingerprints,” as AP writes, but especially given today’s media climate (and al Shabab follows the news) drone strikes will be read by many Somalis (and perhaps some in the Middle East as well) as active and unwelcome US intervention. If the TFG offensive fails to defeat al Shabab or significantly expand government control, and merely produces destruction and civilian casualties, the US could find its popularity diminished in Somalia and its goals no closer to realization. Any deaths of American soldiers will, moreover, produce real outcry here in the US. So I hope the question officials at the Pentagon are asking themselves is not, “How should we intervene?” but “Is intervention worth it, and can it work?” I suspect the answer to the latter question is no.