Home / Robert Farley / More on the Feasibility Question

More on the Feasibility Question


A few more thoughts on the feasibility question...

The short answer to “would a capture operation against al-Awlaki have been feasible?” is “Depends on the amount of risk and expense you’re willing to incur.”  Both a drone strike and an SOF raid require the same basic priors: reasonably accurate knowledge of target location, and access to that location by air.  An SOF raid is a more substantial undertaking because it requires more expensive aircraft, more personnel, and greater firepower.  It also runs a significantly greater risk in terms of personnel and equipment; even if the enemy doesn’t shoot down the aircraft or resist on the ground very effectively, accidents happen a lot.  An SOF raid can also require a more substantial diplomatic commitment.  Even if Yemen and Pakistan are willing to tolerate drone raids, they may not want to host (however briefly) SOF.  However, such reluctance is a manageable problem; better to ask forgiveness than permission, and a couple new F-16s heal all wounds, etc.

And so yes, in the literal sense a raid to capture al-Awlaki would have been feasible.  But while it wouldn’t have been militarily or politically impossible to seize al-Awlaki in Yemen, it would be militarily impossible to conduct operations on the scale of the drone war without the drones.  Special forces operations are much more costly, much more difficult, and consequently can be executed with much lower frequency than drone attacks. In areas where JSOC has dense infrastructure (bases) and legal impunity (a host government like Afghanistan), a large scale raid program is workable.  In places like Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan, you need drones in order to carry out a war of the scale that the Obama administration wants.  SOF raids may be worthwhile for a few important targets (like bin Laden) but there’s a limit on how far you can scale that up.

And so the next question becomes “was al-Awlaki a special target by virtue of his American citizenship, or was he just another Al Qaeda operative?”  If he’s special, then the feasibility question is important and relevant; it might be worthwhile to risk the cost and casualties to grab him.  If he’s not special, then a grab operation isn’t feasible; if you allow that any old target requires the devotion of substantial SOF resources, then again its impossible to carry out the war that Obama has been waging.

Now I, for one, do think that al-Awlaki was special, or more specifically that the US government has special responsibilities to its citizens.  First, a couple points to narrow the conversation and describe my priors. I don’t have any particular problem with the idea of being at war with an NGO, or with a collection of NGOs; the idea that “war” is only something that happens between sovereign states is a an artifact of how that particular form of social organization has come to dominant social life over the past century or so.  Moreover, I much prefer the construction “we are at war with Al Qaeda” to “we are at War with Terror;” the former is a legal claim, while the latter is an absurdity. In the context of such a war, the drone campaign may or may not be appropriate.  I’m inclined to think about this question from practical rather than legal grounds, mostly because the legal arguments are extremely complicated and are fuzzy/flexible; an institution as large as the executive branch of the United States government can effectively make many things legal, or at least legal enough to squeeze past a judiciary uninterested in constraining executive foreign policy-making power.  The key question about the drone war, then, becomes “does it work?”  The administration is certain that it does; I am less certain, but that’s a debate for another day.

But then, for the reasons I discuss in this thread, I do think that the US government has different ethical responsibilities to American citizens and non-Americans. In broad terms, the US government is expected to protect its citizens and respond to their needs; citizens of other countries make similar claims, at least theoretically, against their own governments.  If the US kills a Saudi, at the very least it’s answerable to complaints from the Saudi government, even if in practice that government is unlikely to complain about most of the people the US wants to kill.  US citizens are owed (morally, if not legally) an extra degree of consideration from the US government, to the extent at least of public evidence, actual indictments, and good faith efforts to capture rather than kill.

The issue of whether al-Awlaki merits the additional resources and risk that an SOF raid would entail thus becomes mainly political, with contributing legal and military considerations.  And for all the justifications for not using special forces, I have no doubt that this one rang true for policymakers: “Why should we risk the lives of Navy SEALs to apprehend this asshole, whom we firmly believe to be guilty of terrorist activity? In weighing the lives of American citizens, why would we ever risk the former to save the latter?” This question has a political corollary, which runs “Why would we ever want to appear to be risking the lives of Navy SEALs to apprehend this asshole, who has no constituency beyond a bunch of hippies who hate us anyway?”

On its own terms, this political logic is extremely compelling.  The Obama administration ran an enormous risk by sending such a large SOF team into Pakistan to kill bin Laden.  If a helicopter had crashed, if bin Laden had escaped, or both, the administration would have faced some very serious problems both inside and outside of government.  Mitt Romney et al would have demanded to know why Obama “let bin Laden get away” by not killing him with an airstrike, while the military and intelligence community would probably blame the administration for the failure of the mission.  Obama decided this was worth the risk because the upside was so high; everybody would be happy if bin Laden was dead.  With al-Awlaki and similar figures, the reward for even a successful capture isn’t that high.  While evidence against al-Awlaki probably isn’t tainted to the same degree as figures apprehended during the Bush administration, it’s likely that the administration would still view a trial as politically and legally difficult. Even if you capture him, you lose; if you kill him while “trying” to capture him, the hippies are still unhappy; if SEALs die while trying to capture him, then Rick Perry complains about how your “law enforcement approach” to fighting the War on Terror is costing America the lives of its very best, etc.

This is enough to make you exceedingly receptive to arguments that it’s both legal and appropriate to blow up al-Awlaki rather than try to capture him. I hasten to add that what I’m trying to do here is give a notional description of the political decision-making process, rather than an apology for it; to the extent that decisions were made in order to avoid domestic criticism from one coalition, space obviously opens up for critiques from other coalitions.  In this case, I suspect that assessments both of the political considerations discussed above (don’t risk SEALs, and don’t be seen as risking SEALs) weighed heavily on policymakers.  Both represent tradeoffs, the former trading due process and robust protection of American citizens for risk to the lives of American soldiers, and the latter weighing Mitt Romney’s criticism against Glenn Greenwald’s.

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  • rea

    I’m not sure why it cannot be the case tht Obama honestly cares about the lives of US troops, rather than simply making a political calculation that wasting the lives of US troops is bad politics.

    • Charlie Sweatpants

      I don’t see any reason it’s an either/or proposition. I doubt Obama is as personally cavalier about other people’s deaths as his wretched predecessor, but as President he has no choice but to factor in politics as well.

      And while I’d agree that it’s far better to be at war with “Al-Qaeda” than with “terror”, at this point the original NGO has been shattered and we’re chasing who knows how many splinter groups. Fighting any bunch of numbskulls who appropriate the name isn’t any more feasible than fighting “terror”. Given the rapid expansion of the drone wars in the last three years, that’s setting itself up to be a huge long term problem. Put another way, do the reduced human/political costs of our robot warriors make it so easy for the government to expand its wars that there basically isn’t anywhere we aren’t willing to send them?

      • Kurzleg

        That’s my worry as well. The barrier to action keeps getting reduced, and so you get a feedback loop where resentment to the US in the Middle East gets continuously reinforced. If there is a need for action of this sort, I guess it’s less irritating than an occupying army, but still.

  • ajay

    The short answer to “would a capture operation against al-Awlaki have been feasible?” is “Depends on the amount of risk and expense you’re willing to incur.”

    Not really. There is, surely, an upper limit to the size of a raid and the sort of target it can go after. To take a reductio, if the target’s surrounded by 300 armed men, then a raid is not really going to be practical – how many SEALs are you going to need? Have you even got that many SEALs? If the guy is in mountains or in a city or a military encampment, where are you going to land them and extract them? There is going to come a point at which a SOF raid is just not feasible, regardless of risk and expense.

    • Hogan

      Depends on the value of the target, doesn’t it?

      • ajay

        Hogan: no, I don’t think it does. There comes a point where, however valuable the target, a SOF raid will just not succeed. This is the Green Lantern theory applied to military operations. If it’s, say, Saddam Hussein in his palace in Baghdad in 1991, do you really think that any SOF raid could have succeeded? You can’t build a house without bricks, however important it is to you to get that house built.

        • Hogan

          Ah gotcha. But I thought Rob was focusing on the case of al-Awlaki, not making a general argument about SOF operations.

          • ajay

            I think he’s making a general argument: as I read it he’s implying that as long as you have “reasonably accurate knowledge of target location, and access to that location by air” then a drone strike and an SOF raid are both feasible, and it’s just a question of trading off cost against likely gain. I don’t think this is correct.

            • In fact, it’s obviously incorrect.

              One can easily come up with scenarios where a drone strike is fairly easy, but an actual extraction would take a large scale operation with conventional forces to even attempt.

        • L2P

          If you’re talking about “Saddam Hussein in his palace in Baghdad in 1991” an airstrike probably wouldn’t have worked, either. Recall we tried to kill Khadafy and Bin Laden with airstrikes and failed, knowing exactly where they were. I don’t think anybody would argue that SOF can be used against literally any target, but then neither can air power. IMO it just seems that way b/c we like it so much.

          If instead we’re talking about the kinds of targets that the US would have a good chance of success against with very limited airstrikes, then you’re really likely to see the same sorts of targets that are on a range of possibility for SOF. Short of presidents, high-ranking military guys and similar people, I’m not sure there’s a lot of people on that list of absolutely immune to any reasonable SOF operation.

          And then we’re in the middle of Farley’s point that “feasibile” doesn’t mean impossible so much as a balane of chance of success and risk to the US.

  • There’s one other variable that needs to be taken into account when weighing SOF raids against air strikes: the ability of the former to collect intelligence. The DoD seemed to have a pretty good idea of what bin Laden’s compound was like, and they report having seized a “treasure trove” of hard drives and other useful intelligence. I’m left to conclude that the value of this intelligence was a relevant factor in Obama’s decision and the recommendations of his advisors to go with SEALs instead of a drone strike.

  • Charrua

    You can’t separate the feasibility from the legality. It’s precisely the easiness with which is possible to carry out drone attacks what is driving the expansion of appropiate potential targets. The seeming lack of a true legal limit on permissible targets (or the vanishing of such a limit) is what should be troubling here.

  • Tom Allen

    The feasibility of capturing as opposed to killing al-Awlaki and Khan, and the propriety of using drones as the Administration did, can certainly be argued convincingly.

    So argue it. In court. The evidence doesn’t need to be made public to the world, but it does need to be produced to the court. The outrage is not so much that these guys were killed, it’s that they were killed without any judge anywhere ruling on it. It’s that the President just said, “Kill them,” and they were killed.

    Put another way: if the President had captured and imprisoned al-Awlaki indefinitely without trial, that also would be an outrageous Constitutional violation. The feasibility of capture versus killing is just haggling over which way to make a complete mockery of the Judicial Branch.

    • wengler

      I’m pretty sure this is one of the reasons that killing is so much more preferred over capture these days. The US has been unwilling to sign on to any international courts that could claim the universal jurisdiction necessary to try these people. The US has also set up a scattershot system first constructed under Bush, who thought laws don’t ever apply to a President, especially during wartime.

      So now I’m sure the imperative is to incinerate people so they don’t have to deal with the issues around detention. It’s pretty clear that the ‘kill don’t capture’ order on bin Laden was issued with this in mind.

      • I think that’s probably true in some cases, though I don’t know that it has to be wholly cynical. Imagine the U.S. had captured bin Laden for a minute. How many Americans do you think would explicitly and openly support torturing him for information? Maybe that’s a cross to bear, but given the choice between dealing with the likely consequences of capture in the domestic political sense and just killing him in a military raid, I don’t have much of a problem with the latter. It’s not as though his connections to al Qaeda are in doubt, nor tangential.

        But where al-Awlaki is concerned, his citizenship would seem to make that moot. In the event of capture, he would clearly be entitled to his full due process rights.

    • I’m not a full on expert on this or anything, but the more I look into that question, the more dubious I am about it. For one, it seems likely that you couldn’t indict al-Awlaki in absentia per current rules on the matter, at least not without a ruling specifically allowing an indictment to proceed on the merits. What’s more, it doesn’t appear as though there’s necessarily any mechanism by which you could have a court ruling on the veracity of the evidence to decide whether or not al-Awlaki was a legitimate military target.

      Hard cases make bad law doesn’t really seem like an appropriate cliche here, but I don’t have anything better.

      • Of course you could indite him no matter where he was. Anyone anywhere can be charged with a crime against the laws of the USA. Whether or not you could catch them for trial is another thing.

  • soullite

    The thing is, once you guys acknowledge that this really about trade-offs, you have to abandon all the ‘THIS WAS THE BEST WE COULD DO!!!!’ bullshit. You also have to acknowledge that other people have the right to disagree, and to disagree quite vehemently, both with those trade-offs and with the mindset that lead to trade-offs that are always entirely one-sided.

    Which is why I don’t suspect that acknowledgment to be carried very far or to be widespread on the o-bot side of things. Once these things stop being a matter of ‘this is how it had to be’ and start becoming ‘these are the choices we made’, you can no longer pretend that everyone who disagrees with you is a spoiled brat or an idealistic dreamer – you have to start acknowledging that we are merely people who disagree with you and your priorities.

  • efgoldman

    There you go again, Farley. Injecting common sense into an argument. What are we gonna’ do with you?

  • wengler

    I think we are going to see in the coming years that giving politicians flying killer machines that inherently have no responsibility to service men and women attached to them is an extremely bad idea.

  • Bleh, this entire post is such nonsense, it’s hard to know even where to begin. But lets say we accept your premise and posit that a raid like the one that took out Bin Ladin would have been a reasonable thing to attempt. What do you think outcome of such an operation would be?

    If I recall correctly, Navy SEALS killed Osama bin Ladin. Do you really think that an al-Awlaki operation goes down any differently? What do you think the odds are are that he surrenders and they bring him back alive.

    Odds are, even a successful operation nets you the same result.

    • Michael Drew

      Exactly. “Feasibility of capture” (which is the claim made) is entirely different from “feasibility of an operation designed to capture, whatever its chances of succeeding.” I’m trying to understand in what range of success probability scenarios Dr. Farley is saying the government has a special responsibility to attempt capture of a target he thinks they would otherwise be on solid legal grounds in killing because of a target’s U.S. citizenship – in which they would not have the responsibility to attempt one if the target is not a U.S. citizen.

      If the U.S., say, would have an obligation to attempt capture of a non-citizen if there was a greater-than 40% chance of a successful capture (in fact, I think there almost isn’t one – we don’t consider feasibility of capture a relevant consideration in many of our decisions to strike suspected AQ in the FATA; rather we just consider ourselves to be striking enemy combatants), is the maximum chance of successful capture over which the U.S. can choose to opt for a kill order in the case of a U.S. citizen, say, 10%? 25%? 5%? 1%?

      I’m also still unclear on precisely the account the professor has settled upon to explain the choice of raid over strike for OBL. He says he thinks SOF on the ground may have been less welcome for Pakistan than drone strike, but then why use the commandos. He had previously mentioned the need for the ability to prove the target had been KIA: is this still his account? My sense is that using missile strikes in a densely populated area of Pakistan outside the area where they tacitly condone such strikes (FATA, NWFP, etc.), a few blocks from their West Point, etc., would be more unwelcome for the Pakistanis than the SOF in fact was. I guess I just think that the professor is downplaying highly contingent practical considerations of each case in simply placing each along a kind of smooth continuum of political benefit and risk, along which certain thresholds (such as how to treat citizens, questions of feasibility, etc.) can be defined almost as quantifiable functions that can be used to find precise values for certain variables given various conditions. I think common sense dictates that it’s all less systematic than that.

  • Gary K.

    OK, I’ll bite. Everybody here seems to know what SOF means, but I sure don’t, and Google isn’t helping, nor any of your links.

    • Special Operations Forces, i.e. Navy Seals, Green Berets, Recon Marines, etc.

  • njorl

    It seems to me that any argument for not killing him is also an equally valid argument for not capturing him. Either he is a combatant, and subject to being killed by military action, or he is not a combatant, and we have no right to capture him.

    The argument about capturing vs killing him seems to me to be entirely tactical – a nuts-and-bolts decision requiring expertise and comprehensive knowledge to make. The process for deciding to target someone for either killing or capturing is something of more concern to us all.

  • Zoltar the Magnificent

    From what I’ve come across so far, Awlaki is plausibly accused of providing justifications for terror operations, and making the implications that someone should do something about a war on Islam. Much like Bill O’Reilly and his ‘War on Christmas,’ or a great deal of right-wing US pontification about how Christianity is being overwhelmed by Moslems/Jews/Secular Humanists. More, Anders Breivik cited a variety of American anti-Muslim bloggers in his manifesto, and we know that O’Reilly was calling George Tiller ‘Tiller the Killer’ in the years leading up to Tiller’s murder. And we have had disorderly right-wing mobs waving guns at rallies and mouthing off about ‘second amendment remedies’ for the last three years, plus occasional shooting rampages from yer less balanced wingers. Now I guess we’re not going to do any drone strikes on Tea Partiers, Atlas Shrugged, or Faux News, but should we take the level of promotion of violence from these people into account when we decide who warrants a drone strike outside of the US? I mean, shouldn’t ‘worse than the mainstream Republican party’ be a good lower limit for killing someone, particularly if they’re a US citizen?

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