The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Pattern of Life

The Los Angeles Times reports that the Obama administration continues a Bush administration policy called "pattern of life" surveillance. This approach uses a variety of intelligence sources to track the movement of "militants" to discern whether or not they are active members of a terrorist organization such as the Pakistani Taliban.

Using a combination of video surveillance coupled with sophisticated database technology, the movements of individuals are tracked on a daily basis, their telecommunications are recorded and analyzed, and their associations are carefully watched. If all prevailing evidence indicates that an individual is a terrorist and is involved in activities that might cause harm to the US military, foreign nationals, or U.S. citizens either at home or abroad, that individual may be killed using UAV missile strikes.

Although some in the "human rights” community condemns this approach (quietly, because they are loath to criticize this President), I believe it is a necessary strategy for disrupting and ultimately eliminating terrorist activities in localities where we cannot pursue fanatics using more conventional means. In an otherwise feckless approach to Islamic terrorism, the Obama administration should be commended for continuing this program.

However, Richard Fernandez of The Belmont Club notes that "pattern of life" approach may be going after terrorists at the wrong level. He suggests that the administration would prefer to pursue the small fry in the terrorist movement, moving down the chain of command rather than up. He argues that moving up the chain of command might lead to people who number among the elite within a given country such as Pakistan. Fernandez writes:
The only conceivable scenario in which the target list can be moved up instead of down is if Pakistan — or whoever — suddenly did something so awful that even Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama couldn’t overlook it. Like nuking New York. Maybe not even that. If that happened, then maybe, just maybe, the crosshairs on the UAV will be adjusted up the ladder rather than down. The implications of this dynamic is that the world may be tacitly slipping into a new species of Cold War. The War on Terror isn’t being fought to win, it’s being fought to keep the lid on. The conflict will be managed, not resolved. The War will be kept within bounds, at all costs. An explosion in New York will be met by a flurry of missiles fired from robotic aircraft circling over certain countries. Tit for Tat. Corpse for corpse. Missile for car bomb.

But unlike the Cold War, which was waged between two rational superpowers, a limited war between fanatics and rationally timid West is not necessarily stable. The levels of violence instead of stabilizing will tend to increase. They are already trending upward. If the Times Square bombing is any indicator, then the terrorists are ramping up their campaign. And so will the American drones ramp up the response. Smaller missiles, more drones, more surveillance. But there is no natural ceiling to the escalation. That is the specter which must haunt Washington. There’s no reason why, having reached N that you shouldn’t go to N + 1.

But there’s a remedy for strategic dilemmas like that. Don’t face it: kick the can down the road. What is likely to happen is that Washington will expand the targeting list downward until it watching every hut, every Internet cafe, every prepaid cellphone, every madrassa it can. We have Open Source Warfare and Swarming to the limit. But the core targets will may never be taken out. Why? Because that’s too dangerous. Will the target list ever expand it upward? Not unless it is forced to. Going upward is destabilizing because that’s where the elites are.

“Kicking the can down the road” is what Washington elites do when they face unpleasant choices. It’s only when a terrible event occurs, that they’re forced to pick up the can and make a decision. The problem here is that a “terrible event” can cost hundreds or thousands of lives.