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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Drone strikes will not win "the war'


In early 2009, counterinsurgency gurus David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum aired their concern that American drone strikes in Pakistan might not be all that productive — a tactic for knocking off individual terrorists, maybe, not a strategy for wiping out Al Qaeda’s haven. The pair caught all kinds of flak from military and intelligence officials for the suggestion. But months earlier, we now learn, the director of the CIA was expressing similar reservations to the White House.

Overlooked in the hoopla over naming calling and secret memos, there are vignettes in Bob Woodward’s new book of officials at the highest levels discussing the drone campaign’s severe limitations. Most startlingly, the person with the deepest concerns about the CIA’s signature effort of the terror war appears to be Gen. Michael Hayden, the Agency’s one-time director.

“As an Air Force officer,” Woodward writes, “Hayden knew that to get a strategic victory — to defeat al Qaeda — America had to change the facts of the ground. Otherwise, the U.S. would be doing piecemeal drone strikes forever. The great lesson of World War II and Vietnam was that attack from the air, even massive bombings, can’t win a war.”

It may also serve to distract attention from the US incursion into Pakistani territory over the weekend and the killing of at least 60 “suspects” with attack helicopters. The identities of those killed in the attack remain to be revealed.

On January 23rd, a pair of drone strikes took out five militants in Pakistan. “Rahm,” Hayden told the new White House Chief of Staff, “you have to understand that what we just talked about was a counterterrorism success… Unless you’re prepared to do this forever, you have to change the facts on the ground. That requires successful counterinsurgency.”

Hayden wasn’t opposed to the drones. In fact, he persuaded Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari to go along with a major escalation in the robotic campaign against Al Qaeda’s leaders. “Kill the seniors,” Zardari replied, in Woodward’s recounting. “Collateralal damage worries you Americans. It does not worry me.” Drone strikes went from one or two a year to 34 attacks in the last year of the Bush administration. (That was only “80 percent” of the Agency’s worldwide unmanned strikes, Hayden told Obama.) And if a Pakistani-based terrorist ever managed to strike inside the United States, the CIA had a “retribution plan” to strike at least 150 camps in Pakistan.

Nevertheless, former CIA officer and leader of the Obama White House’s initial Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy review Bruce Riedel told the President in March, 2009, the robot airplanes may be the least important component of the assaults. “Predator drone strikes only work because CIA paramilitary teams have an ultra-secret presence on the ground in Pakistan,” Woodward writes. “Without the local informants these teams develop, there would not be good signals intelligence so that the drones know where to target. This was a risky enterprise that might collapse overnight. So don’t rely on drones, Riedel said. They look like a cheap way out, but they’re not.”

How seriously Obama took the advice isn’t clear. This month, there have been 20 reported drone strikes — the highest number ever in the robotic campaign.

*


The US drone strike of Sept. 28th in the South Waziristan Agency, the latest in an almost daily salvo of strikes this month, killed four people including, according to Pakistani officials, the “third-in-command” of al-Qaeda Shaikh al-Fateh.

If the story sounds familiar it is because the killing of al-Qaeda’s third-in-command has been a several time a year occurrence during the global war on terror. As only the top two members of the organization are well known, the killings of the organization’s “number three” are regularly reported and spun as a major victory, though they never seem to change the situation on the ground.

Still, if it is confirmed that the person killed in the attack is an al-Qaeda leader, it couldn’t have come at a better time, as the previous 20 US attacks in the month of September had failed to kill anybody who was a confirmed militant, killing dozens of civilians and scores of “suspects.”

It may also serve to distract attention from the US incursion into Pakistani territory over the weekend and the killing of at least 60 “suspects” with attack helicopters. The identities of those killed in the attack remain to be revealed.

[Wired/Antiwar Newswire]

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