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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Showing posts for "Military Operations"

Are Drones More Precise Than Manned Aircraft?

by Micah Zenko
A U.S. airman guides a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone as it taxis to the runway at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan on March 9, 2016. (Josh Smith/Reuters)

This blog post was coauthored with my research associate, Amelia M. Wolf.

In our latest piece at ForeignPolicy.com, we evaluate the Obama administration’s long-standing claim that drone strikes are more “precise” and cause fewer civilian fatalities than airstrikes by manned aircraft. We approach this challenge recognizing the limits of understanding who is being targeted and killed by all U.S. aerial operations. In addition, we admit that there are no wholly reliable or independently verifiable data sources, either from the U.S. government or research NGOs. Read more »

Obama’s Latest Admission on Drone Strikes

by Micah Zenko
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the University of Chicago Law School in Chicago, Illinois, on April 7, 2016. (Young/Reuters)

Yesterday, President Obama was asked a revealing question at the end of an appearance at the University of Chicago defending the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.  A student inquired about the president’s unilateral authority to authorize drone strikes outside of traditional battlefields, asking specifically:  “How are these killings morally and legally justified, and what kind of message does this drone program send about American values to the world, the American people, and to law students like myself who refuse to put trust in an opaque process.”  Naturally, Obama did not respond directly to the student’s question, but this twelve minute video segment (starting at 1:10:42) is worth reviewing in its entirety, as it is Obama’s longest unscripted reflection of the drone strikes that have come to define his approach to counterterrorism. Read more »

Guest Post: Clinton vs. Trump on Defeating the Islamic State

by Guest Blogger for Micah Zenko
A combination photo shows Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump in Palm Beach, Florida and Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in Miami, Florida at their respective Super Tuesday primaries campaign events on March 1, 2016. (Audette and Galeano/Reuters)

Tina Huang is an intern in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State will be a leading foreign policy issue for the incoming administration. Thus, it is crucial to understand the proposed policies of the candidates. The current results of the primary elections indicate that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and businessman Donald Trump will likely win their party’s nominations. Though both candidates use strikingly similar rhetoric to describe how to counter the Islamic State, a close analysis of the details they each have provided exposes starkly different approaches. Read more »

Red Teaming Nuclear Intelligence: The Suspected Syrian Reactor

by Micah Zenko
This undated combination image released by the U.S. Government shows the North Korean reactor in Yongbyon and the nuclear reactor under construction in Syria. The White House on April 24, 2008 broke its official silence on the mysterious September 6, 2007 Israeli air strike. (U.S. Government/Reuters)

In former CIA and NSA director Gen. Michael Hayden’s new memoir, Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror, he describes the case of Al Kibar, in which Israeli officials informed the United States in 2007 about a building under construction in Syria that they thought was a nuclear reactor. Hayden writes, “Then we gave the data to a red team, dedicated contrarians, and directed they come up with an alternative explanation. Build an alternative case as to why it’s not a nuclear reactor; why it’s not intended to produce plutonium for a weapon; why North Korea is not involved.” (p. 258) Read more »

Sen. Ted Cruz and the Myth of Carpet Bombing

by Micah Zenko
Republican Presidential candidate Ted Cruz speaks at a rally at the Boys and Girls Club of Truckee Meadows in Reno, Nevada on February 22, 2016. (Glover/Reuters)

On December 5, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) while speaking at the FreedomWorks “Rising Tide” Summit in Des Moines, Iowa, made the alarming pledge, “If I am elected president, we will utterly destroy ISIS…We will carpet bomb them into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out!” Cruz’s promise to authorize the commitment of war crimes, presumably in an effort to sound “tough,” was met with derision by most other Republican presidential candidates, politicians of both parties, and senior military officials. Cruz subsequently amended his initial promise to say, “you would carpet bomb where ISIS is, not a city, but the location of the troops…you have embedded special forces to direction [sic] the air power. But the object isn’t to level a city. The object is to kill the ISIS terrorists.” Read more »

Guest Post: Do-It-Yourself Military Intelligence

by Guest Blogger for Micah Zenko
View of the airstrip near Rumaylan in northeast Syria accessed on February 18, 2016. (Google Maps/DigitalGlobe)

Harry Oppenheimer and Aaron Picozzi are research associates at the Council on Foreign Relations.

An unparalleled, indiscriminate and growing wave of transparency is exposing the deployment of military assets—once found only through labored searches of technical publications—and high definition, near-real-time images of geographical locations worldwide, are obtainable through the click of a mouse. As tensions rise between the United States and potential state and non-state adversaries, the veil of secrecy that at one time could only be lifted by intelligence agencies is now accessible to virtually anyone via the worldwide web. Read more »

Why a Syria Safe Zone Still Won’t Work or Protect Civilians

by Micah Zenko
Residents inspect damage after airstrikes by pro-Syrian government forces in the rebel held Al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on February 4, 2016. (Ismail/Reuters)

Respected former U.S. diplomats Nicholas Burns and James Jeffrey published a Washington Post op-ed today, calling on the U.S. military to lead the creation of a “safe zone” in northern Syria. The authors propose, “to locate it over twenty-five to thirty miles south of the Turkish border….Its central purpose would be to help local forces drive out the Islamic State and to provide a haven for civilians until the war can be brought to a close.” Burns and Jeffrey further acknowledge some of the difficulties involved with their proposal, admitting that, “the United States would have to deploy U.S. soldiers on the ground inside Syria along the Turkish border in order to recruit the majority of the zone’s soldiers from Turkey and other NATO allies, as well as the Sunni Arab states.” This safe haven would be further protected by a no-fly zone operating primarily out of Turkish airbases. Read more »

Guest Post: What Happens if the Battlefield ‘Goes Dark’?

by Guest Blogger for Micah Zenko
A U.S. soldier smokes next to an armoured vehicle before a night operation in southeast Baghdad on September 12, 2007. The image below the soldier's face is a reflection of a GPS unit's screen, as seen from inside a vehicle. (Barria/Reuters)

Aaron Picozzi is a research associate for the military fellows at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The United States has recently enjoyed the tactical benefit of fighting enemies incapable of matching the technological prowess of the U.S. military. The use of modern weaponry against relatively antiquated forces has led to successful operations on the battlefield, particularly against the Taliban in Afghanistan. The U.S. military’s high-tech upper hand relies upon the leverage of these technological disparities, and in turn, has fostered an inflated level of combat supremacy. This problem resonates from foot soldiers to the highest level commanders and planners. Read more »

How Many Bombs Did the United States Drop in 2015?

by Micah Zenko
Smoke and flames rise over Syrian town of Kobani after an airstrike, as seen from the Mursitpinar crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province on October 20, 2014. (Pfaffenbach/Reuters)

The primary focus—meaning the commitment of personnel, resources, and senior leaders’ attention—of U.S. counterterrorism policies is the capture or killing (though, overwhelmingly killing) of existing terrorists. Far less money and programmatic attention is dedicated to preventing the emergence of new terrorists. As an anecdotal example of this, I often ask U.S. government officials and mid-level staffers, “what are you doing to prevent a neutral person from becoming a terrorist?” They always claim this this is not their responsibility, and point toward other agencies, usually the Department of State (DOS) or Department of Homeland Security (DHS), where this is purportedly their obligation internationally or domestically, respectively. DOS and DHS officials then refer generally to “countering violent extremism” policies, while acknowledging that U.S. government efforts on this front have been wholly ineffective. Read more »

Chuck Hagel’s Revealing Insight Into Obama’s Syria Strategy

by Micah Zenko
Outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel walks during a farewell ceremony at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Virginia on January 28, 2015. (Gripas/Reuters)

Last week, former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel gave his first extended interview since resigning as Pentagon chief in November 2014. The curated interview with Foreign Policy is worth reading in its entirety, if for nothing else than the insights into how White House officials and staffers micromanaged Department of Defense decisions; Hagel claims that staffers would call generals “asking fifth-level questions that the White House should not be involved in.” (This would not be the first or last White House charged with this degree of oversight.) Read more »