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Episode Notes – Civilian Deaths

There’s been an enormous spike in civilian deaths. That spike has been so large that airwars.org has had to suspend its operations counting deaths from Russian strikes in order to more fully cover the 1000-death month of March. The header graph is taken from the Airwars data.

The argument laid out by the Brookings Institution in favor of drones is here. The arguments include better civilian casualty ratios, cheaper operation, greater operational flexibility, better intel and the protection of American lives.

Vox argues that the huge spike in civilian deaths may be the result of the mission parameters focusing on urbanization, though an expert quoted later in the piece points out that urban fighting hasn’t caused this level of death before.

We need to acknowledge the many changes in the process of enforcing the rules of engagement. While the ROE itself has remained relatively untouched (probably), who enforces it has changed. In April 2016, the United States delegated decisionmaking authority on targets away from the White House and introduced the concept of a sliding scale on non-combatant value. That said, in July 2016, concern over civilian deaths also led to a renewed focus on preventing civilian deaths all while they accelerated the process by which strikes occurred.

With all of that in mind, there’s no clear answer from the Obama administration or drone advocates as to why the ratio of civilian deaths is 45 times higher in drone missions than manned missions even after accounting for the specific nature of missions that drones are used in, which naturally mean higher civilian risk.

We may never get a good answer on civilian deaths from the military, as they stick their head in the sand and refuse to engage in honest accounting of civilian deaths.

An official Centcom document declassified last year shows that investigators dismissed many allegations almost immediately. After a member of Iraq’s Parliament warned in January 2015 that internally displaced civilians had been killed by airstrikes near Mosul, the coalition dismissed the report the following day, noting there was “insufficient information to determine time and location of the incident.” The Iraqi lawmaker who issued the warning told my organization that his office was never contacted.

All of those Obama-era policies, reforms or not, have been exacerbated by the Trump administration, which has used the precedent set by the Obama administration and turned it into an even more barbaric execution of the War on Terror.

Not only have Trump-era drone strikes been deadlier by the strike, the amount of operations performed by a drone has rapidly increased. Under Obama, there was a drone strike once every 5.4 days. Under Trump there’s been one ever 1.8 days.

Still, we cannot have an honest discussion about civilian deaths without acknowledging that the ramp-up in civilian casualties started before Trump was sworn in, with a rise essentially coming in the fall of 2016.

Episode Notes – Global Anti-Terrorism Strategy

A microcosm of global strategy, an analysis of the failures of the plan to retake Mosul (as well as how long it will take to finally overtake the city) can help explain some of the problems the United States will face going forward. The plan to retake Mosul was doomed from the get-go. That includes relying on false assumptions about the likelihood of an ISIS retreat from the city, an underestimation on the impact that a civilian presence would have in military operations, an inability to account for the weather and no effort to cut off supply lines in the siege of the city. The success of taking Mosul resulted in 40,000 sympathetic fighters from 100 countries joining ISIS.

Mosul represents one element in the campaign against ISIS, which itself is only one campaign in the broader war on terror. That campaign may be at an end sooner than many think. ISIS is on the verge of collapse and there are a lot of leading indicators. The first is simply in its media operations, which has not only shrunk from 40 media offices to 19, but has fractured in its message-making.

That means there are significant post-ISIS policies that need to be considered by the United States because a breakup of ISIS doesn’t mean an elimination of all of the members of ISIS, many of whom will leave the organization with a whole new set of skills that are dangerous to have in the hands of fundamentalists. They have become so skilled at messaging, for example, that they’ve adopted long-con policies straight from 1984, like destroying history and historical artifacts.

ISIS has lost 45 percent of its territory in Syria and 20 percent of its territory in Iraq since its peak. Its annual revenue has more than halved. It’s ability to recruit fighters from abroad has plummeted from 2,000 crossing the Turkey-Syria border each month to 50. But those leaving ISIS will still leave with strong ideological reasons to commit terror.

Here’s a good piece by Vox on the utter stupidity of cutting the foreign aid budget, the statecraft tools used by the State Department and their specific capabilities as diplomats in Iraq and Syria.

Immediate humanitarian aid to war-ravaged areas, combined with long-term investments in providing basic government services (things like picking up the trash) and economic development, will be necessary.

First and foremost will be working with international humanitarian organizations to make sure civilians caught up and displaced by the fighting get food, water, and shelter. There will have to be major efforts to reconstruct cities and villages destroyed by the conflict so that the local population that fled can return.

And finally, there are programs designed to help Iraqis set up things like city councils that can help manage local services and make Iraqis feel as though they are being represented. All of these programs are critical to reducing the feeling of political alienation in ISIS-held territory that gave ISIS the opportunity to thrive in the first place.

The tools of the State Department and diplomacy at large are highly valued by American military generals, especially the ones staffed by the Trump administration. They have told him how important diplomacy is and he has proceeded to ignore them entirely.

Those only reference the tools within Syria and Iraq gained from a friendlier foreign policy, but we have recent evidence on the nature of multilateralism and how it impacts the ability of the United States to fight terrorism globally—in Libya and the Horn of Africa. Only through multilateralism was the United States able to get Libya to bow down to pressure and stop its budding military relationship with the Revolutionary Guard. Not only that, allies were critical in terms of tools and talent in reducing the influence of the al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia, al-Shabab.

Broadly, the Global War on Terror may be operationally stunted because there’s no clear outline of goals in the intermediate and long-term. An obsession with splashy “wins” will undercut the necessary long view needed to obtain broad policy goals of a more secure United States and a less able operating environment for terrorists, for example. The same DefenseOne article linked above (in reference to American military generals disagreeing with Trump) pointed out that conspicuous wins will come at the cost of real policy change.

Generals don’t much like to talk about “winning” against terrorism. They understand and tell the public and Congress that the U.S. is in a 10-, 30-, 100- year battle against a multi-generational ideological war of ideas far beyond the military battlefield. What is “winning” in that context?

Trump, however, is fixated on a more conspicuous form of winning. “We have to start winning wars again,” he said Monday.

His public fixation, despite the 4-star guidance he received, has implications for the budget and the war plan. Last week, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford said the new counter-ISIS war plan the Pentagon was sending to Trump actually was not a “military plan.” It was a whole-of-government plan, calling for non-military help to fight ISIS. There was no talk of “winning” and Dunford certainly understands why. He was commander of the seemingly never-ending Afghanistan War. But on Monday, Trump proudly boasted his first federal budget proposal would shift $54 billion to the Pentagon from the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other non-defense agencies. It sounds like the complete opposite of what Dunford said the Pentagon was about to propose. Mattis delivered that plan to the White House on Monday.

Even the newest general on Team Trump has struck out already. Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster advised Trump to drop the rhetoric of “radical Islamic terrorism” from his speech because it angers the Muslim world, stokes anti-American fires, and endangers U.S. troops and national security. McMaster was overruled by Trump’s political team.

There’s little hope that this administration will learn the lessons from its own generals. It has appointed Sebastian Gorka as its terrorism czar, and formally as its deputy advisor on national security affairs. Aside from the fact that he lies about basic facts on the ground, he covers for those lies by lying about meetings he doesn’t have the security clearance to be in. Also, he used to believe that phrases like “radical Islamic terrorism” were harmful, not helpful in the prosecution of the War on Terror. He blocks people on Twitter for asking why he changed his mind.

I’ve wondered when and why Gorka changed his scholarly views on the utility of the term “radical Islamic terrorism.” He used to believe that framing the terrorist challenge in precisely the way he now regularly expresses is deeply problematic. Consider this from his 2007 doctoral dissertation, which sounds like it could’ve been written by Barack Obama (or, for that matter, by Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, Trump’s new national security advisor): “Unfortunately the adjectives most often used to pin-point the existential threat [of transnational terrorism] so cited are Muslim, Islamic or Islamist terrorism, with Global Jihadism becoming more and more popular as well. All of these descriptions do a great disservice to law-abiding Muslims everywhere and also add an undeserved sense of quasi religious legitimacy to murderous terrorists that have little in common with the teachings of the Koran or Mohammed.” (See footnote 6, page 9 here.)

Needless to say, there is a radical difference (pun intended) between Gorka’s views then and now.

(For the record, I tried to ask Gorka about this on Twitter — and his only response was to promptly block me.)

Also, he’s a profound failure as an academic and his one published paper wouldn’t do well as an undergraduate submission much less a Ph.D level dissertation on the war on terror.

The fight against terrorism is more economic than it is military. Eliminating individual fighters does not get rid of the reason fighters may be attracted to organizations like al-Shabab, Boko Haram, ISIS or the Taliban. Evidence strongly suggests that those come from strong local governance institutions (like the kind provided for by USAID services that have been cut), confidence in local government (which USAID provides, whether or not local government actually helped distribute it) and strong economies.

Employment matters. The piece linked above (and once again here) about the efficacy of USAID comes from the polling data mentioned in the episode about why fighters joined Boko Haram and ISIS. A large Brookings Institution meta-data look confirms this in a broader context than polls and evaluates data from ISIS fighter demographic makeup, interview data,  and more.