13 Jan 20

If it were Me, I'd Pull the Trigger

We saw it on the News.  The US killed an Iranian general.  Trump ordered it.  The strike came from a drone.  A guy we had never heard of, whom we were told was really bad, was killed along with members of his staff, while driving away from the Baghdad airport on his way to mischief.

It got my attention.  I spent 13 years in the US Air Force flying MQ-1 and MQ-9 unmanned aircraft--usually armed--hunting down bad guys in Iraq, Afghanistan, other places.

Soon we learn that this is not just any Iranian general, but THE Iranian general.  Soliemani.  Commander of the Quds Force (another thing we had never heard of).  Orchestrator of terror attacks all over the region.  Perennial thorn in the side of the United States.  A very high-up and revered figure in Iran.  A real baddie.

But it's never been US policy to attack Iran directly.  There's been no declaration of war.  There's been no Congressional authorization to use military force against Iran.  It would be a stretch to say the AUMF passed after 9/11 to go after Al Qaeda and the Taliban applies to Iran.

We all know it.

We learn in grade school that Congress declares war.  Not the President.  It's right there in the Constitution.

So I couldn't help but ask myself the question.  If I were in the left seat of the MQ-9 cockpit that night, and I received a targeting message to fly over the Baghdad airport, find Soliemani's car, and put a couple of Hellfire missiles into it, would I have done it?

Full transparency.  I think our current Iran policy--if you can call it that--is asinine.  The purpose of the US military is to achieve national security objectives.  Our objectives in the middle-east should be to keep Iran in check, prevent them from obtaining nuclear weapons, and promote stability so that places like Iraq and Syria don't turn into safe havens for terrorist.  Military force is a bad tool for these goals.  Sanctions are not much better.  Diplomacy, economic development, and a free press are the best.  It was the US Government who sent me to several fancy war colleges to teach me just that.

But diplomacy is hard.  The use of force is a lot easier, and it can be very satisfying--emotionally--when you kill a bad guy.  It was all the Obama administration could do to disenthrall ourselves from the reliance on the military for all these things.   The treaty Obama negotiated with Iran to have them freeze their nuclear weapons program in exchange for an easing of sanctions was probably the best anyone could hope for as an initial effort.

Trump's policy of tearing up this treaty to instead apply "Maximum Pressure" against Iran is terrible.  It takes away our diplomatic tools, and plays into the hands of Iranian leaders.  It bolsters their power over their own people because it gives all Iranians a common enemy--the US.  It emboldens the Iranians to act and makes the region less stable.  It costs lots of blood and lots of treasure.

So we probably shouldn't have taken that shot.  As emotionally satisfying as it was, we shouldn't have killed Soliemani.  Not at that time and not in that place.

But when I put myself back in the left seat of the cockpit, when I imagine looking down through the sensors on the MQ-9 at the Soliemani convoy, and I think about receiving the orders to strike, there's no question.

I take the shot.

How come?  Doesn't make sense.  It might even be illegal.  You're the pilot in command.  Why not draw the line?

Lots of reasons that might pop in your head at the time.  It's a military target.  Quds has been designated by the State Department as a terrorist organization.  We have an inherent right to self defense.  And if the DoD says Soliemani is about to launch an attack, the Pilot of the MQ-9 is not really in a position to argue--especially when you're staring at a moving target and you only have a few moments to act.

There are institutional reasons.  Military pilots operate at the tactical level and are empowered to make tactical decisions--where to position the aircraft to achieve the desired effects.  Deciding not to fly when the weather is bad.  Which weapon to use to blow up a target.  Am I looking at the correct target?  Etc.

But when it comes to the big strategic decisions--like whether or not to start a war with a country--that's supposed to be done by generals and senior civilian leaders.  Not only are military pilots not expected to make those decisions, but refusing to engage a target based on your strategic judgement could get you in a bit of trouble with the brass (I can tell you from experience).

Then there is a concept from behavioral economics known as Action Bias.  It's the idea that you might feel an impulse to act in order to gain a sense of control over a situation.  And in military operations, this happens constantly.

Case in point, tracking a convoy like Soliemani's--one that operators in the military would call a High Value Target (HVT) or High Value Individual (HVI).  There were many times in Iraq and Afghanistan when I was tracking a vehicle or convoy that I was pretty sure contained Taliban or Al Qaeda or ISIS leaders.  I had a pretty good idea that these HVIs were on their way to do harm to Americans or our allies.  Maybe they were going to plant explosive devices on the roads.  Maybe they were going to set up an ambush someplace.  Maybe they were just heading to a meeting where they would plot and scheme to do all of the above.

The right thing to do typically was to keep following them, see who they meet up with, where they go, and piece together their network over time.  But that takes a lot of restraint.  And when IEDs keep killing Americans or our allies, having to piece together a terrorist network over time can make you feel helpless.

Whereas blowing them up right now, feels like you have control.

These guys are bad.  If I kill them right now, they can't do bad things anymore.

Never mind that the plans they laid are already in motion, and killing them might not actually degrade those plans.  Action now feels like you have control.

So I have complete sympathy for the crew in the cockpit of the MQ-9 on Jan 2nd, staring down at the Soliemani convoy.  They were told to take him out.  And everything in their training, and in their DNA as humans, told them to take the shot.  The did the only thing they could do.  And I would've done the same.

Good tactics can't fix a bad strategy.