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Obama’s Drone War Escalates in Syria, Despite Fueling Violence in Other Countries

President Barack Obama’s administration has apparently expanded covert drone operations in Syria in order to strike leaders of the Islamic State. But the expansion is destined to fail as much as previous operations in other countries, which have only fueled the rise of violent extremism.

A number of anonymous U.S. officials spoke to The Washington Post, for a September 1 report, about drone operations and how the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) are working together. The CIA and JSOC have been responsible for recent strikes on senior Islamic State operatives.

According to the Post, the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC) is identifying and locating “high-value targets.” JSOC is carrying out the strikes. The claimed legal authority for the strikes is the post-9/11 Authorized Use of Military Force for targeting al-Qaida.

The operations are separate from the 2,450 strikes, which have been launched in the U.S.-led military offensive in Syria. They apparently reflect a view among “counterterrorism officials” that the Islamic State continues to become more and more dangerous, and “conventional strikes” are not properly degrading the “group’s strength.”

The CIA and JSOC’s ability to mount “relatively small” and “nimble operations” in a “culture of near-total secrecy,” has been appealing to the Obama administration, according to author Daniel Klaidman’s book, “Kill or Capture.”

Klaidman argued JSOC is not required by law to brief Congress when it engages in clandestine operations. The lure of JSOC is that it has helped free Obama from the constraints of law and politics.

Freedom from accountability does not mean that relying on this secret army has worked. In 2014, the State Department reported on “serious threats” posed by the emergence of al-Qaida affiliates in Iraq, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and parts of northwest Africa. These are countries where the U.S. has been relying on covert intelligence or military operations to fight terrorism.

In May 2012, The Washington Post reported that in Yemen, “An escalating campaign of U.S. drone strikes is stirring increasing sympathy for al Qaida-linked militants and driving tribesmen to join a network linked to terrorist plots against the United States.”

More than 100 drone strikes have been launched in Yemen since 2009, but Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has grown from 200 people in 2009 to “several thousand.”

As Amel Ahmed, a Yemeni freelance writer, suggested, “Al Qaida would not be in Yemen but for a discredited central government that has failed to provide its people with opportunities and better living conditions.”

Plus, the U.S.-backed war fought by Saudi Arabia in Yemen has strengthened AQAP. The U.S. has continued drone strikes against alleged al-Qaida fighters, even amidst a raging war between Saudis and Houthis where the Saudi government is not explicitly targeting al-Qaida. But these strikes do not seem to be noticeably diminishing the power of al-Qaida forces in Yemen.

Jeremy Scahill’s “Dirty Wars,” makes it immensely clear how this strategy has backfired.

The CIA backed Somali warlords were defeated by the Islamic Courts Union in the mid-2000s. “Blowback sparked by US policies in Somalia and abroad,” further inspired al-Qaida activity.

“The civilian tolls the wars were taking in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, gave credence to the perception that the United States was waging a war against Islam,” Scahill wrote. “While the United States backed its own warlords in Mogadishu, Washington’s post-9/11 actions led to the formation of a coalition of former warlords and religious movements that would challenge the rule of the U.S. proxies in Somalia.”

When Ethiopia got involved in the fighting, that further escalated the conflict. Malcolm Nance, a “career navy counterterrorist specialist who trained elite U.S. Special Operations Forces,” told Scahill, “The Shabab existed in a very small warlord-like infrastructure, prior to that, but once Ethiopia went in there—it’s pretty obvious that they were acting as a [U.S.] surrogate—al-Qaida said, ‘Great! New full-on Jihadi battlefront. We’ve got ’em here. We’ve got the Christian Ethiopians, we’ve got American advisers. Now we just create a new battlefront and we will reinvigorate East Africa’s al-Qaida organization.’ And that is exactly what happened.”

On September 1, Shabab militants reportedly “overran an African Union military base in southern Somalia.” The attack included a suicide bombing and a firefight. Shabab claimed it had killed 50 Ugandan peacekeepers. This happened about a month after the U.S. increased drone strikes to not only strike “high-value targets” but also defend troops on the ground.

Compared to Somalia and Yemen, Pakistan has managed to achieve a bit of success against militant groups in the past months with its own military offensive. Daud Khattak described how short-term victories have been won against the Taliban, and, “For the first time in the past several years, Pakistani security forces attained the undisputed support of the civilian leadership, including the political parties” as well as the “general public.”

Terrorist violence decreased for the first time since 2007. According to the Islamabad- based Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies, “militant attacks have dropped by 50 percent since the launch of Operation Zarb-e-Azb.”

Although a U.S. drone strike killed six alleged militants on September 2, the rate of drone strikes in Pakistan has dropped considerably since January. That may partly explain the support for the Pakistan military’s offensive.

A Pew Research Center poll published in 2014 found 66 percent of Pakistanis opposed drone strikes. It seems apparent that success against militant groups will come from the country’s own forces and not US forces, which are likely to fuel and attract responses from militant groups.

There is zero evidence to suggest that drones or other covert operations will be more effective against terrorist groups than the current US-led military offensive. However, no officials in Washington—including elected representatives in Congress—will challenge the use of drones.

The U.S. is already struggling with a CIA program involving the training of “moderate” Syrian rebels. “Al-Qaida-style extremists” have played a key role in the fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. They are militant Islamists, the same types the president has proudly placed on kill lists for assassination.

Aside from the ineffectiveness, these dirty wars stretch the boundaries of international law and result in the deaths of hundreds of civilians, even as the Obama administration insists drone technology is somehow more precise than other modes of warfare.

But do not expect to hear this reality confronted by anonymous U.S. officials, who agree to talk to The Post for an “occasional” series called “Confronting the ‘Caliphate.'”

Anonymous U.S. officials are only interested in their talking points on the rise of the Islamic State and U.S. efforts to fight the militant group. They depend on the propaganda value of a newspaper which will publish statements from them and produce features like this which avoid questioning the efficacy of transforming the world into a battlefield.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."