Remote control: light on new war

Armed drones, special forces, privatisation and secrecy are the preferred tools of military campaigns from Iraq-Syria to the Sahel. Now, researchers are mapping this landscape in the public interest.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
15 October 2014

The United States-led operation against the Islamic State is already faltering. The media focus on the fight for Kobani, on the border between Syria and Turkey, has meant neglect of the important advances being made by IS across Iraq's Anbar province. There, two months of airstrikes have so far had little effect, as the paramilitaries quickly adapt to the challenge.

In itself this ability to respond to air power is hardly surprising. Much of the Islamic State's leadership is drawn from militias that survived the western occupation of Iraq from 2003-10, in the process gaining more experience of the impact of air-assaults than just about any other group since the mujahideen that fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s (see "The thirty-year war, continued", 11 September 2014).

Patrick Cockburn, one of the best-informed western journalists, reports that the IS has taken over many towns and villages along the Euphrates west of Baghdad, saying they “fell in a few days, often after little resistance by the Iraqi Army which showed itself to be as dysfunctional as in the past, even when backed by US air strikes” (see Patrick Cockburn, "War against Isis: US air strategy in tatters as militants march on", Independent on Sunday, 12 October 2014). Several other despatches elaborate on further problems: the flight of army personnel from the city of Heet, in Anbar; the depserate siege of army units at Iraq's largest oil-refinery; even the prospect that the entire province is at risk.

Among many setbacks for the new Iraqi government, particularly damaging was the assassination on 12 October of Anbar province's police commander, Major-General Ahmen Saddag, when two roadside-bombs hit his heavily protected convoy (see Kirk Semple, “Bomb attack kills police chief in strategic Iraqi province", New York Times, 13 October 2014). The same day, three suicide-bombers attacked a security centre in Qara Taba district north-east of Baghdad, killing thirty people and injuring 140; the previous day, multiple bomb-attacks around Baghdad had taken more than lives and injured nearly a hundred.

A strategic shift

Barack Obama's stated aim is to use air-power to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State. The creeping failure of the objective is already having an effect in Washington; the former presidential contender John McCain argues that “the United States should be sending targeted Special Forces troops and forward air-controllers…”

McCain may be speaking more as a politician rather than the military figure he once was, but he represents a view that is increasingly common inside the beltway, The implication is that the Obama administration now has to consider how to defeat the Islamic State without the incremental committment of tens of thousands of troops. What is virtually certain is that the US will move in the direction of “remote control”: that is, far greater use of air power, especially armed-drones, supplemented by a rapid expansion of the deployment of special forces. The latter would draw directly on the experience of the "shadow war" of 2004-07 fought mainly in Anbar province and the greater Baghdad area. 

The combination - armed-drones, stand-off weapons, low-profile special forces - is initially attractive. At best, it guarantees little media coverage in the west, few of our boys getting killed, and useful results on the ground. After all, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was terminated in late 2001 using special forces, air-power and proxy ground-troops (the Northern Alliance), and the rebellion in Iraq was curbed, in part, by Task Force 145.

A way around secrecy

It seems simple - but it isn’t. The tools to make an informed judgment are increasingly available from a range of studies and projects now underway. This week, for example, sees the timely appearance of one of the first fruits of the Remote Control Project, an initiative of the Network for Social Change. The project, started in late 2013, is in turn hosted by Oxford Research Group.

This publication is all the more valuable as detailed research on "remote control" warfare is still in its early stages. In this case the group has sought out academics and think-tank experts to commission a very interesting range of work, about half of which has already been made available. The material so far is summarised in a handy digest released on 13 October; it includes reports on the use of cyberwarfare, summaries of regular monthly reports on diverse remote-control developments from Open Briefing, and a series of studies with intriguing results. There is much more to come.

Many investigators are concerned that independent research in this area is made so difficult by the high levels of secrecy and singular lack of transparency that surround it. The Every Casualty group, for example, finds it extremely difficult to get accurate information on civilian casualties caused by drone-strikes. It is especially hard to get accurate information on the use of special forces.

Three individual studies give a flavour of the work being done, often by getting round the obstacles of official secrecy.

First, Crofton Black does some lateral research - data-mining publicly available information on US defence-budget contracts to private companies hired by the US special-operations command (USSOCOM). What he discovered was the very high level of privatisation, involving billions of dollars, and the range of activities contracted out, even including psychological operations and interrogation. From a security perspective, such privatisation may provide an extra layer of secrecy; but it also means far less public transparency and debate over what is being done.

Second, Wali Aslam of the University of Bath, in another report, examines some of the side-effects of large-scale armed-drone operations in north-west Pakistan. One of his results, hardly surprising to anyone with common sense, was that leading jihadists likely to be subject to targeted killing simply relocated, often to cities where they could remain highly active if largely hidden from view 

Third, a report on recent developments in the Sahel, particularly Mali and Niger offers insight into areas which have largely disappeared from the western media. In perhaps one of the most interesting pieces of research, the report uncovers a very quiet but speedy escalation in the US military presence, joining with reinforced French forces. In some ways the Sahel region is becoming a model for the new style of warfare - even a clear example of “liddism”, that is, keeping the lid on conflicts rather than going for the roots of the problems (see "Beyond 'liddism': toward real global security", 1 April 2010). This approach makes it necessary to work with some of the most autocratic regimes in the region, but always with the minimum of publicity.

A new direction

A common feature of much of this research is the conclusion that the various forms of remote warfare are leading to an increase in radicalisation and extreme actions, rather than the decrease they seek. This is part of a wider and uncomfortable conclusion that so much of the “war on terror” has not just failed but has made matters worse. Around 2010-12, especially after the killing of Osama bin Laden, a widespread view among western politicians and analysts was that al-Qaida and similar movements were way past their peak. Today, as in the military conference in Washington on 14 October, Barack Obama talks of a war lasting years.

An overall perspective suggests it is no longer possible to argue convincingly that drones, special forces and other forms of remote control are the answer to radical movements. The proper direction is to look much more deeply at the conditions which have encouraged these groups to develop. Otherwise, the idea of a war lasting years may be superseded by one lasting decades.

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