A recent drone strike in Yemen appears to have killed several members of a wedding party, rather than hitting Al Qaeda militants as intended. Initial reports from Yemese officials (often adjusted later) suggest that 14 have been killed and 22 wounded. This event will spur another round of questions about the legality of drone attacks and how they are employed. This may be asking the wrong question.
“Are drone strikes even relevant?” This is the more appropriate question. Put another way, the question is whether or not drone strikes are even operating in the correct battle space required to have an effect on the enemy.
If the drone operations are supposed to be supporting the “war on terror” then it should follow that the drone strikes should have not only a tactical and operational impact, but at the same time they must have strategic effect.
Our terrorist opponents are operating primary in the non-bounded (non-physical) strategic battle space of ideas and political messaging. Al Qaeda, its affiliates and associates, do occasionally operate in the physical battle space at the tactical and operational level, but they are not doing well. They get defeated in most physical confrontations and have developed an impressive list of causalities. They can still carry out short term, high impact events on occasion (Westgate Mall, Kenya) but they are not capable of a sustained campaign at the tactical level.
At the operational level, Al Qaeda and its allies run hearts and minds campaigns, but the reality is they are killing more Muslims than anyone else and the heart of their narrative (Takfirsim) is still seen as counter intuitive by most in the Muslim world.
At the strategic level, Al Qaeda is operating almost unopposed in their chosen battle space. They can and will continue to dominate in the winning battle space, even if their message may sometimes be confused. The reality is that the West needs, but is lacking, both a strong strategic narrative and critical responses to the Al Qaeda core narrative and its propaganda.
Drone strikes carry out carry out kinetic strikes at the tactical and operational level. We remain committed to operating in this bounded physical battle space and have not yet demonstrated an ability to move into the battle space at the strategic level.
In fact, it is arguable that we are not even attempting to operate in the same strategic battle space as they are – so defeating them or prevailing in the face of their message will be virtually impossible. Quite arguably, the drone strikes are having a minimal effect at the tactical and operational level. At the same time, they are feeding into the strategic battle space message of Al Qaeda and supporting one of their key narratives about how Muslims are always under attack by the ‘crusader’ forces of the West.
The questions about drone strikes need to focus in more on the issue of whether or not they are even capable of having a strategic effect on those we identify as the enemy. We can neither win nor prevail if we willingly chose to fight the wrong war with the wrong weapons in the wrong battle space.
Bluntly put, we may be winning some battles (tactical, operational) but we are losing the war (strategic).