Remote Warfare - The Latest (failing) Phase of Counter Terrorism

23/02/2015 17:29 GMT | Updated 25/04/2015 10:59 BST

Remember David Rees sharp satirical look at post 9/11 politics, 'Get Your War On' when one of the clip-art characters says "Oh my God, this War On Terrorism is gonna rule! I can't wait until the war is over and there's no more terrorism!"

And the other replies: "I know! Remember when the US had a drug problem, and then we declared a War on Drugs, and now you can't buy drugs anymore? It'll be just like that!"

Rees was a better forecaster than George Bush, Dick Cheney or any other counter terrorism knuckle-cracker after 2001. The Western counter terrorism campaign is now 14 years old and looks like spreading the problem not stopping it.

The game has changed recently. Instead of boots on the ground we have drones in the skies. Nearly every week sees a UAV strike in Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq or Afghanistan. Maybe you are sick of hearing about drone strikes, especially if you know a civilian victim but I am part of a group of academics and researchers following the use of Western power in the seeming 'forever war' against terrorism and we see drones not alone but as part of a wider approach of remote warfare: the use of tactics which minimize direct contact with the target. As well as drones (and other targeted air strikes) this includes the use by Western states of special forces, local paramilitaries, private military operators, trainers, and intelligence professionals.

The problem is that this overall package hasn't been any more effective than drones - or anything tried before.

This is the case even if you look at the supposed successes. Remote warfare was central to removing Gaddafi in Libya in 2011. The disparate and poorly trained local militias opposing Gaddafi went miraculously from stalemate or reverse in March 2011 to takingTripoli by August. This was achieved by special forces from France, the UK and Qatar acting as trainers and spotters for air attacks, by the provision of comms and military equipment by Western countries and by covert intelligence and political support from MI6 and similar organisations.

But then the Remote Warfare warriors packed up and went home, leaving Libya to become a blood-soaked zone where even the US ambassador wasn't safe

Successful or not, one of the main reasons Remote Warfare has emerged strongly is due to the failure of the deployment of large armed forces on the ground. Iraq is an unfolding violent disaster only briefly paused by the much hyped surge in 2007 and although the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan was accompanied by claims of success by Obama and by British Prime Minister David Cameron as 'mission accomplished' no-one buys this with the Taliban power still evident in the country.

If remote warfare takes the place of boots on the ground, then for the USA at least it is part of a continuing strategy which is pretty consistent. The US wants to apply the tools of foreign policy and military force in a concentrated and directed way against its opponents until they crack. The French will do the same to jihadists in Africa, and seem to have had more success with their remote warfare there

(For the British however their participation in remote warfare - from Libya to the strikes now being conducted against ISIS - is part of an attempt to remain at the 'top table' of international security. British involvement brings little benefit but covers the hole at the centre of UK security strategy).

But whatever the reasoning behind these tactics they are not working. They are what military thinker Gian Gentile calls a strategy of tactics, the use of weapons and techniques because they seem to work rather than because they fit any larger long term plan.

As such, this Remote Warfare is 'managing' jihadism but it cannot defeat it. The conflict is too advanced for that. Bin Laden's idea of a global jihad fuelled by the spectacular violence of 9/11 never materialised but the US response led to the spread and militarisation of jihadist groups who now are increasingly well armed, organised and control territory in Iraq, Syria, northern Nigeria and central Yemen.

Ignoring another one of their own military thinkers, John Boyd the US under Bush failed to 'get inside the loop' of decision making of Al Qaeda after 9/11. Instead US tactics, especially the bizarre decision to invade Iraq, sent counter terrorism into a side-track which then helped spread jihadism across the Middle East. Now remote warfare cannot 'get inside the loop' of the various armed groups across Africa and the Middle East. Whether attacking IS or Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, drones are not a sign of Western power; they are the latest milestone in a failing struggle against jihadism which stretches back nearly two decades.