Earlier this year, the Colombian military whacked "32 high-value narco-terrorists" with the help of US Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconaissance (ISR) platforms. Today, we now know that they are all Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) members from FARC, ELN, and Peru's Shining Path.
Of course, this is hardly anything new. In some ways, outsourcing the means of coercion to trusted foreign partners actually predates the US as a country. It was always a part of the Anglosphere military tradition, and was frequently seen in the brutal battles from Columbus to the mid-19th century over who would control the Americas. The very 'shores of Tripoli" were stormed with help from local mercenaries. And, as Jeremy Scahill, Micah Zenko, or other chroniclers of the post-9/11 wars will tell you, it goes on today behind the spectacle of drones and special operations forces.
Previous posts here at Abu Muquwama have relentlessly pounded home the point that the policy is platform-independent, and that the idea that drones somehow have led to our current woes is faulty beyond measure. Previous posts have also established that when there is a national security policy consensus, the President will reward those who execute his will with symbolic and material resources and punish/marginalize those who will not.
If the large and amorphous movement to delegitimize current US counterterrorism policies continues, we'll be going back (apologies to my friend Joshua Foust) a decade later than the 90s. The hard truth that the US discovered during the Cold War was that an International Humanitarian Law (IHL)-compliant professional military that honors Huntingtonian civil-military norms is a luxury, not a basic condition. If you don't believe me, look at the continuing discipline and accountability problems among developing world militaries in UN peacekeeping organizations. Sure, they often get the job done, but a myriad forms of sexual misconduct and even cholera outbreaks follow them. Furthermore, governments that are actually incentivized to and capable of building a state that can protect its citizens, honor their rights, or refrain from robbing them blind don't exactly grow on trees either.
The hard truth is that many of the places the US government wants to play around in for either national security, economic, or humanitarian reasons are troubled (to put it mildly). Getting the results that the policy requires inevitably means moral compromises. However, those compromises are vastly more visible when the US itself is making them. It will be much harder to get leaks on "disposition matrices" from corrupt governments, sub-state militias, or rebel groups.
In fact, this hypothetical assumes that the median United People's Liberation Army (UPLA) of Anarchic Hellhole-istan fighter has something as formal as a disposition matrix guiding where his technical's rusting Warsaw Pact-era heavy machine gun points (as opposed to a qat-induced haze).
So no, Josh, you've got it only half right that we're going back to the 1990s. We may be going back from an already moronic 2013 debate over drones and SOF to an even more stupid 1980s debate over Contras, Guatelamans, and dead priests. We have a long history with the Colombian military, and thus we have much more leverage over their compliance with war law and norms. Many other governments, however, consider Bashir Assad's daddy to be a source of inspiration as far as counterinsurgeny, counterrorism, and everything else you can "counter" by reducing a city to rubble with massed artillery.
So say it with me again: there ain't no such thing as a free lunch. In war, particularly wars that involve messing with the internal politics of troubled regions of the world, there are no clean and conscience-free ways to destroy large numbers of irregular foes. That's why the policy itself ought to be getting most of the attention.
But with the way that commentators obsessively focuse on the tech and the personnel rather than the job done, I'm ready to start taking bets about which US military facility will be the new School of the Americas for Code Pink to picket. Winner gets gratis copies of my GDELT t-shirt.