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Drone Use in the War on Terror: Negative Narratives

Sentiment map courtesy of RecordedFuture

The Obama Administration’s use of drones has become an increasingly contentious issue as this lethal tactic continues to provoke negative sentiment around the world.  The covert nature of drone strikes and their classified nature have led to disapproval among some Americans.  Many are calling for more transparency in the Obama administration’s use of drones, demanding policies be put in place to limit the president’s unilateral capacity to call the shots on drone strikes.

The U.S.’s use of drones to combat violent extremists has been on the rise in countries including Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.  While drones have played an important role in taking out key terrorists on America’s “Kill List,” civilian casualties as a result of drone strikes have produced growing anti-American sentiment across the Middle East. Protests against drone strikes, particularly in Pakistan, have received worldwide attention.

On the other hand, drone use has undeniable advantages in that they result in zero U.S. casualties and the drones’ missiles are extremely accurate.  A study by the New America Foundation estimates that since 2004, between 2000 and 3300 militants were killed, while between 250 and 400 civilian causalities occurred as a result of these operations. Notably, the non-militant fatality rate under President Obama was only 14%, compared to 46% under President Bush. Furthermore, a 2013 RAND study argues that the U.S. drone program “reduces militant violence by increasing the costs of militant activities and creating an incentive for militants to lie low to avoid being targeted.” However, drones are viewed by many countries around the world as a breach of national sovereignty and an example of American disregard for innocent civilians’ lives. It is interesting to note that coverage of drones has been dominated by a negative narrative (see chart above) until very recently when the Obama Administration acknowledged the program and began providing legal justifications for it.

Former Director of the NSA and CIA, Michael Hayden, recently elaborated on the administration’s argument, stating that approval of drone strikes is rooted in national perception –because the U.S. believes it is engaged in a global war on terrorism, it can use the legality of war to justify targeted killings. However, the administration still lacks a clear communications effort both within the U.S. and in target countries that explains the military benefits of the U.S. policy. Perhaps because of this, many are beginning to believe that drones do more harm than good; Hayden emphasized that even if drone strikes are legitimate and effective, “the secondary and tertiary effects of this kind of activity [political blowback within the target countries] may now begin to outweigh the sought-after primary effect which is to reduce the level of threat.”

Ultimately, drone use is a short-term solution to a much bigger problem. Getting to the root cause of extremist movements will require the U.S. to generate more support in volatile regions around the world.


Public Diplomacy Counterterrorism: Beating Terrorists at Their Own Game

As terrorist entities and non-state actors increasingly use the internet as a means to market themselves and attract potential recruits, the U.S. government’s monitoring of, and engagement with, terrorist websites have come under fire.

Actions like the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communication’s efforts to discredit al-Qaeda by posting coffins draped in Yemeni flags on the group’s chat forums make many wonder: Why doesn’t the U.S. use its cyber capabilities to shut down these forums?

Wired magazine Editor-at-Large Ben Hammersley offered one explanation at a Brookings Institution event.  He argued that digital radicalization is not a typical national security concern because use of military action is inadequate in addressing the issue.  With proliferating access to digital technologies worldwide, there are simply too many real and potential threats for counterterrorism officials to remove from the internet.  He suggests that governments frame digital radicalization not as a military issue but as an epidemiological one.

The metaphor of digital radicalization as an epidemiological problem is apt for describing the State Department’s approach to counterterrorism.  The State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications monitors online forums used by terrorist groups to identify trends in terrorist communications.  It analyzes data gathered from these forums to find unique themes and patterns that emerge in different groups’ online recruitment efforts.  By understanding these trends, the Center can develop communications strategies targeted for the populations that are most susceptible to each groups’ propaganda.  Like epidemiologists who search for patterns among specific populations to determine the causes of public health problems, the Center searches for themes in terrorist groups’ recruitment efforts to prevent the spread of radicalization.

Radicalization, whether offline or online, will continue to occur as long as terrorist entities exist. Simply shutting down web pages will not prevent radicalization; in fact, some believe shutting down terrorist activity online would drive extremists farther underground to other, less visible channels. Rather, it is more important for the government to understand the motivations of radicalized individuals and to use this understanding to preempt further recruitment by beating adversaries at their own game.


Twitter Feuds: Digital Diplomacy on the Fritz

Thanks to digital diplomacy, it’s possible to reach and engage domestic and foreign constituencies using the Internet. This form of virtual communication presents an opportunity for the U.S. to reveal and defend its foreign policy (as has been the case with the U.S. embassies in Afghanistan and Pakistan).

However, diplomats have often found themselves in hot water after the real-time nature of social media allows their misstatements or gaffes to be quickly leveraged against the U.S. As diplomats begin to engage more and more with local populations, they face the difficult task of  figuring out the terrain and making sure they use it to improve the image of the U.S. Otherwise, direct engagement with international audiences via Twitter and similar services can set American diplomats up for disaster.

In our third installment on U.S. digital diplomacy efforts, Strategic Social examines the Twitter feud between U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul and the Russian government. McFaul is among a number of U.S. diplomats who have taken to Twitter as the State Department attempts to harness social media to deliver the U.S. government’s message. But the plain-spoken envoy’s tweets have sparked controversy that could be detrimental to the already troubled “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations.

Since assuming his post in Moscow in January, McFaul has made an overt effort to open a Twitter dialogue with the Russian people. However, Russians have taken issue with his chosen diction and syntax on several occasions. In March, McFaul used his Twitter account to voice his concerns that diplomatic protocols had been breached when it appeared his schedule had been leaked to journalists at NTV, one of three major government-controlled television networks. When NTV aired his interaction with their journalists, the state-run broadcaster emphasized McFaul’s use of the word “wild” when describing Russia. McFaul tried to soften his remarks, writing on Twitter “I misspoke in bad Russian. Did not mean to say ‘wild country.’ Meant to say NTV’s actions ‘wild.’ I greatly respect Russia.”

Also in March, McFaul expressed concern on Twitter regarding the detention of protesters who challenged Putin’s election victory. In response, the Russian Foreign Ministry tweeted that the U.S. had been less humane in dispersing Occupy Wall Street protesters. After McFaul suggested the Russians tried to bribe the Kyrgyz government to evict U.S. forces from an airbase in May, the foreign ministry slammed McFaul for being unprofessional and for criticizing Russian media.

McFaul reacted in several tweets, trying to point out to the foreign ministry Twitter account that he in fact was giving a talk based on improved U.S.-Russian relations in recent years. To dial back some of his remarks he also tweeted: “Still learning the craft of speaking more diplomatically” after one tweeter noted that his HSE talk was a “manifestation of incompetence.”

Ambassador McFaul has had a tumultuous first six months in office and his online presence, though positively enhanced by Russian-language tweets espousing U.S.-Russian unity, has reflected the real-life defense he’s had to play in response to his unorthodoxly frank diplomacy. Though McFaul may not be able to engage as directly with Russians as he may like, Twitter provides one more outlet for the ambassador to get his message across, even if that message is sometimes an apology.


Digital Diplomacy and the Asia Pivot

After more than a decade of war, the U.S. is shifting the strategic balance of its military forces from the Middle East and Central Asia and toward the Asia-Pacific region. The goal of the new defense strategy is to promote U.S. interests by helping to shape the norms and rules of the Asia-Pacific, particularly as China emerges as an ever-more influential regional power. In addition to a “pivot” of its defense resources, Washington is strengthening U.S. alliances and building deeper relationships with emerging partners through digital diplomacy.

Perhaps the strongest military aspect of the Asia-Pacific “strategic pivot” involves Australia and  U.S. digital diplomacy efforts have followed. Twitter use by the U.S. Embassy in Canberra and other U.S. consulates in Australia demonstrates an effort to reinforce diplomatic and military ties with Australia and, moreover its key Asian partners. The embassy regularly tweets about U.S.-Australia maritime cooperation and often retweets posts related to maritime security from the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet and others.


Australia is not the only partner to which the U.S. has been reaching out; India has been tapped as a potential counter to China’s economic and military rise in the region. Prior to hosting the third U.S.-India strategic dialogue, the embassy reposted this statement from the U.S. Pacific Command:

Tweets also focused on relations with adversaries. In light of North Korea’s missile launch plans in early April, the embassy retweeted the following message from the State Department:

The U.S. Embassy in Manila employs Twitter to create a better sense of legitimacy for U.S. military objectives but to a lesser extent than the U.S. embassy in Canberra. Most content on its Twitter page focuses on cultural and business activities in the U.S. and the Philippines as well as environmental initiatives in the host country. The embassy also spends time interacting with its impressive 24,789 followers and responding to visa inquiries. But at the same time, it makes sure to use Twitter as a platform to strengthen its security and strategic partnership with the Philippines. It frequently tweets and retweets messages related to deepening military ties between the two nations, especially after the U.S. announced its “pivot” toward the Asia-Pacific.









Despite these positive interactions, U.S. Twitter diplomacy efforts in the region have not always been well received. Perhaps irked by the U.S.’s Pacific “pivot,” the Chinese government recently told the U.S. to stop tweeting about poor air quality in the country. China has long taken issue with the popular U.S. Embassy Twitter feed that tracks pollution in Beijing, but its past objections were raised quietly until the U.S. announced it intends to maintain and strengthen its military presence in region. In April 2012, a rotation of 200 U.S. Marines arrived in Darwin. The size of the rotation will gradually be expanded into a force of around 2,500 Marine Corps personnel. There also are plans for greater access by U.S. military aircraft to Royal Australian Air Force facilities and for the U.S. Navy to have greater access to Australia’s Indian Ocean navy base HMAS Sterling. Additionally, the Philippines and the U.S. are discussing new military cooperation options, including rotating U.S. troops more frequently into the country and staging more joint exercises.

Chinese censure of the U.S. Embassy’s Twitter feed does not come as a surprise, but it signals a growing diplomatic row that could be damaging to an already precarious U.S.-China relationship. The U.S. move toward the Asia-Pacific could reinforce China’s fear of encirclement and prompt further militarization of the region. Fears and misperceptions linger on both sides of the Pacific, but Twitter use can provide some transparency in diplomatic relations. If U.S. embassies across the Asia-Pacific can harness Twitter to build mutual trust and to promote active efforts in global problem-solving, it would encourage constructive Chinese behavior and provide confidence to regional leaders who wish to resist potential Chinese regional hegemony: a win-win solution.


Digital Diplomacy: Engaging in a Warzone

The U.S. State Department has focused increasingly on moving beyond traditional government-to-government diplomacy to improve its communication and direct engagement with international publics.  This communication focus is particularly evident with populations living in areas where U.S. military operations are taking place.

The logic is simple:  The more international audiences understand the rationale and challenges of U.S. missions, the easier it may be for those local populations to support American goals and objectives.

In our second in a series of posts on the methods and effects of U.S. digital diplomacy, Strategic Social examines two Twitter accounts in countries where local perceptions of U.S. diplomatic efforts could not matter more: Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, these two countries also suffer from low literacy and internet penetration rates making the reach of digital diplomacy not as great as it may be in other countries where social media has become the norm.

As several recent incidents strained relations between the U.S. and Afghanistan, the embassy’s tweets, which are generally precautionary, demonstrate a concerted effort to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. After the burning of Korans at a U.S. base, the embassy immediately tweeted dozens of apologies from Gen. John R. Allen, commander of the International Security Assistance Force, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the White House.

Although the U.S. is now preparing for the withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan, the embassy’s tweets continue to emphasize the U.S. commitment to a long-term partnership with the Afghan people beyond 2014.  For example, one Afghan journalist tweeted “#Ryan Crocker, ‪#US ambassador in ‪#Kabul: US & its allies are tired but not the ‪#Taliban & ‪#Al-Qaeda members.” The embassy replied “@Mohsin_Jam — Misquote of ‪#AmbCrocker. He was saying now is NOT the time to pull out. ‘If we get tired of this, Al-Q&Taliban won’t.’”  The embassy then posted a series of tweets confirming the U.S. commitment to the future of Afghans.

 While the Twitter account is aimed almost exclusively at Afghans, few people tweet at the embassy. It is important to note no U.S. embassy tweets are written in Dari or Pashto, potentially making its efforts appear as half-hearted attempts to reach Afghans  We have found diplomacy, and especially Twitter diplomacy, is often most successful when there are efforts to engage listeners (even if they are not English speaking) in a conversation.

The U.S. embassy in Islamabad also tweets primarily in English. However, English is an official language of Pakistan and the Twitter feed is intended to reach citizens in the host country and Americans abroad. In this case, Twitter is used to broadcast visa tips and news related to counterterrorism cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistani governments.  Most importantly, the embassy maximizes Twitter’s potential by treating it as a conversation. The embassy regularly replies to questions regarding USAID initiatives and counterterrorism efforts, encouraging a productive relationship between the citizens of Pakistan and the U.S. even though government ties have been strained by recent events.

For instance, one Pakistani TV host inquired about the State Department’s reward of $10 million for information leading to the arrest of Pakistani terrorist Hafiz Saeed. The embassy was quick to dispel disinformation regarding the Rewards for Justice program, retweeting embassy spokesman Mark Stroh’s clarification that the bounty is only for evidence that can withstand judicial scrutiny.






As the U.S.’s military commitments to Afghanistan decrease and Pakistan becomes an increasingly strategic partner/neighbor in the fight against violent extremism, the U.S.’s image (whether positive or negative) in the eyes of Afghans and Pakistanis impacts the effectiveness of U.S. operations in the region. Specifically, U.S. diplomatic, economic and humanitarian efforts will only be as successful as the local population allows. Given heightened tensions between the U.S. and these two nations’ governments, local engagement with Afghans and Pakistanis is vital to success.