American officials claimed on June 5th that a CIA drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal belt had killed Al-Qaeda’s deputy leader, the Libyan Abu Yahya al-Libi. Some confusion was subsequently caused, almost certainly deliberately, by a Jihadist website showing al-Libi giving a speech in which he spoke inter alia about the conflict in Syria. No date was given of this video speech. Media analysis suggests that with al-Libi’s death, since most of Al-Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan’s tribal belt has been killed or captured, new attacks against the US and its allies, are being mounted by the group’s affiliates in Yemen and Somalia.
But are drone attacks an efficient counterinsurgency weapon? A senior Pakistani security official speaking after al-Libi’s reported death said, “practically speaking, the drone strikes are a big success. But strategically they are a huge loss. They create more polarization, more enemies, and are an attack on our sovereignty. We have always told the Americans that if anyone should carry out these strikes, it should be us.” It is clear from Pakistan’s reaction to the frequent drone attacks, which have been multiplied under the Obama administration that they are extremely unpopular in Pakistan where America’s stock at the official and popular level has also fallen precipitately. In neighboring Afghanistan after President Karzai’s repeated denunciations of civilian loss of life in NATO airstrikes, US and NATO commanders have pledged not to use airstrikes anymore against civilian dwellings. This is not surprising, as a large number of innocent civilians have been killed by this weapon, notwithstanding frequent claims by US authorities of its precision and accuracy.
Michael Ignatieff, author of Virtual War, writing in the Financial Times suggests that cyber-war and drones offer NATO democracies “enticing prospects of cheap, risk-free warfare – and not just democracies. A new arms race is already underway.” Quoting the examples of Kosovo, Libya, and Afghanistan, Ignatieff opines that virtual war turned out to be the easy part. Democracies have little staying power for the hard slog of reconstructing war-ravaged countries. In other words, drones and cyber-warfare are tactics that cannot lead to the accomplishment of the ultimate strategic objectives of the countries that deploy them.
David Sanger, the New York Times Washington correspondent in an important book has described America’s role in covertly using computer warfare to attack Iran’s nuclear program. This cyber-war has been described by one Presidential advisor as “a state of low grade, daily conflict”. In his chapter captioned “Olympic Games”, which is the heart of this book, Sanger discloses a joint program of Israel and the United States to insert malicious software into the machinery of the Iranian military-industrial complex and thus retard Iran’s ability to manufacture weapons-grade uranium. The software made the Iran’s centrifuges inoperable. But again the question arises: how effective is this virtual war and for how long?
The views of Patrick Seale a respected veteran analyst of the Middle East (whose writings I have followed since my assignment in Syria) are interesting. Seale states: “By any standards launching Stuxnet [name given to malware] against Iran was an attack of state terrorism. That Israel should engage in such practices is not surprising: its entire regional policy is based on subverting and destabilizing its neighbors so as to ensure its own supremacy. But how can the US which claims to be the supreme guardian of the international order, justify such behavior?” And Seale also observes: “The puzzle is to understand what has happened to Obama. This former professor of international law was expected to correct the flagrant crimes of the Bush administration—such as the horrors of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, the water-boarding, the network of secret prisons where torture was routine, and the practice of extraordinary rendition. Instead by his own violent and questionable acts he is widening the gulf between the United States and the Muslim world.”
Coming back to Ignatieff, he (Ignatieff) states: “the larger problem is that these new weapons are bound to escape political and therefore democratic control… Drones and cyber-war technologies are so cheap it will be impossible to keep them under lock and key of the sovereign. The age of the super-empowered and so super-dangerous individual has arrived.”
Ignatieff’s concluding argument is pertinent. He quotes German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s insight that human beings who can freely choose and reason know full well that if you inflict harm, it will come back to hurt you. Everything must be paid for. “If you hit Iran with Stuxnet, you render your own nuclear systems vulnerable to the next hacker, individual or state. If you perfect the killing of individuals with drones, you had better confine your acts to bona fide enemies of your state; otherwise you expose your population as a whole to the same heaven-sent vengeance.”
Both Sanger and Ignatieff have given salutary warnings of the limitations of these new tools of virtual warfare. If you use them, it is virtually certain that your enemies will eventually be able to master them and use them against you. In other words, the advanced countries will not have a monopoly over these weapons. The same point has been made by Misha Glenny a professor at Columbia University in an op-ed article in the New York Times of June 25, 2012.Glenny further suggests that the United States should take the lead in working with other countries to enact a treaty regulating cyber-warfare. According to him, “Washington must halt the spiral toward an arms race, which in the long term, it is not guaranteed to win”.