Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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You Might Have Missed: Counterinsurgency Tactics, Drone Casualties, and the Decline of War

by Micah Zenko
December 22, 2011

U.S. Army soldiers sit behind a wall after an IED blast in Logar province on November 23, 2011 (Umit Bektas/Courtesy Reuters).

U.S. Army soldiers sit behind a wall after an IED blast in Logar province on November 23, 2011 (Umit Bektas/Courtesy Reuters).

- William Booth, “More Predator drones fly U.S.-Mexico border,” Washington Post, December 21, 2011.

The Predators reached a milestone in June, having flown 10,000 hours. The Homeland Security Department reported their drone operations led to the apprehension of 4,865 undocumented immigrants and 238 drug smugglers since the program began six years ago.

Those numbers are not very impressive. Some 327,577 illegal migrants were caught at the southwest border in fiscal 2011, meaning the drones have contributed to tiny fraction of arrests.

- Secretary Hillary Clinton, Remarks on Women, Peace, and Security, December 19, 2011.

From Northern Ireland to Liberia to Nepal and many places in between, we have seen that when women participate in peace processes, they focus discussion on issues like human rights, justice, national reconciliation, and economic renewal that are critical to making peace, but often are overlooked in formal negotiations.  They build coalitions across ethnic and sectarian lines, and they speak up for other marginalized groups.  They act as mediators and help to foster compromise.  And when women organize in large numbers, they galvanize opinion and help change the course of history.

(3PA: For further reading, see the State Department fact sheet data relevant to the National Action Plan.)

- Joshua S. Goldstein and Steven Pinker, “War Really is Going Out of Style,” New York Times, December 17, 2011.

What about other kinds of armed conflict, like civil wars and conflicts that miss the 1,000-death cutoff? Remarkably, they too have been in decline. Civil wars are fewer, smaller and more localized. Terrible flare-ups occur, and for those caught in the middle the results are devastating — but far fewer people are caught in the middle. The biggest continuing war, in Afghanistan, last year killed about 500 Americans, 100 other coalition troops and 5,000 Afghans including civilians. That toll, while deplorable, is a fraction of those in past wars like Vietnam, which killed 5,000 Americans and nearly 150,000 Vietnamese per year. Over all, the annual rate of battle deaths worldwide has fallen from almost 300 per 100,000 of world population during World War II, to almost 30 during Korea, to the low teens during Vietnam, to single digits in the late 1970s and 1980s, to fewer than 1 in the 21st century.

- Report of the Secretary-General, The situation in Afghanistan and its implication for international peace and security, December 13, 2011.

The protection of civilians remained a major concern throughout the country. From late August to the end of November, UNAMA documented 795 civilian deaths and 1,083 civilian injuries…the number of civilian deaths increased by 5 percent during the reporting period. Anti-Government elements caused 1,432 civilian casualties (609 civilian deaths and 823 civilian injuries), representing 77 per cent of all civilian deaths for the reporting period, an increase of 7 percent compared to the number of civilians killed by anti-Government elements during the same period in 2010. Pro-Government forces caused 203 civilian casualties (83 deaths and 120 injuries, or 10 percent of the total number of civilian deaths during the reporting period). This represents a decrease of 25 percent of civilian deaths attributed to pro-Government forces, in comparison to the same period in 2010; 13 percent of civilian deaths could not be attributed to any party to the conflict. (6-7)

- Jeffrey A. Friedman, Manpower and Counterinsurgency: Empirical Foundations for Theory and Doctrine, Security Studies, November 29, 2011.

The central finding of this paper is that the current conventional wisdom about the significance of manpower in counterinsurgency—codified in official military doctrine as the claim that counterinsurgents require roughly twenty troops per one thousand inhabitants in the area of operations in order to be successful—has no discernible empirical support. Across 171 counterinsurgency campaigns since World War I, there is no reason to think that this threshold (or any other threshold, for that matter) is a useful way to predict strategic outcomes. A broader implication of this finding is that much of the debate over force sizing for counterinsurgency is framed in a misleading fashion, searching for a “rule of thumb” that, in all likelihood, simply does not exist. (557-558)

(3PA: For the origins of the “rule of thumb”—one security force per every 50 inhabitants—see Force Requirements in Stability Operations by James Quinlivan.)

- Jacob D. Kathman and Reed M. Wood, Managing Threat, Cost, and Incentive to Kill: The Short- and Long-Term Effects of Interventions in Mass Killings, Journal of Conflict Resolution, May 26, 2011.

By disaggregating interventions according to the side supported, our analysis shows that effectiveness is a function of intervention type and the third party’s resolve in staying committed to the crisis. Specifically, we find that in the immediate term, intervention generally exacerbates hostilities. In the longer term, pro-government interventions continue to contribute to an escalation of violence, and there is some evidence that interventions supporting the victims have a similar effect. However, as impartial third parties remain engaged in the genocide, violence abates over time. (736)

- Joby Warrick, The Triple Agent: The al-Qaeda Mole Who Infiltrated the CIA, Doubleday, July 2011.

According to the agency’s closely held body count, its missile strikes had inadvertently killed nine people by the time Panetta took office, or an average of one unintended death for every forty al-Qaeda or Taliban fighters targeted. (66)

(3PA: This unintended death rate is consistent with previous statements by U.S. officials, who claimed that approximately .025 percent of all people killed by drone strikes were civilians.)

To outsiders it might seem an extravagant waste of a life. But the Taliban chief [Baitullah Mehsud] brought his own calculus to such decisions. Every American missile that lit up the sky over Pakistan, he said, was like a recruiting poster, driving more angry young men and boys into his camps. “Every drone strike,” he would say, “brings me three or four new suicide bombers.” (86)

Balawi could rarely be precise about locations—he was a stranger to the area and spoke little Pashto—but his reports helped the agency’s Predator teams narrow their search for targets. Some agency officials concluded as many as five Taliban soldiers were killed as a result of Balawi’s detailed accounts…CIA analysts in Amman and Langley studied the messages with increasing fascination. The agency collected its own bomb damage assessments, usually based on video taken by the Predators lingering in the area after a strike. Its reports matched Balawi’s with striking accuracy. (118)

By January 19, less than three weeks after the suicide bombing, the CIA had launched eleven separate missile strikes over a small swath of North and South Waziristan, killing at least sixty-two people. It was drone warfare at its most furious: Never, since the first Predators were launched over Pakistan in 2004, had the pace been so intense. (189-190)

- Paul B. Stares, Preparing for Sudden Change in North Korea, Council on Foreign Relations, January 2009.

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