Time: June 18, 2012
The risks in waging war by flying robot
With the economy front and center in the presidential campaign, national security has provided mainly background noise. But both parties intend to use it to their advantage whenever they can. The Obama campaign recently released an ad that boastfully — some say shamelessly — recounts the President’s decision to launch the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. But Republicans are meeting bravado with bravado. Asked by CBS News to grade Obama’s foreign policy, Mitt Romney replied, “Oh, an F — no question about that.”
It’s impossible to know whether Romney really believes that’s the case when it comes to Obama’s reliance on unmanned drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists in places from Pakistan to Yemen. When the White House announced on June 5 that a CIA drone attack in Pakistan’s tribal area had killed al-Qaeda’s No. 2 official, Abu Yahya al-Libi, even the Wall Street Journal editorial page, hardly a White House fan site, cheered: “President Obama’s decision to expand the drone program into Pakistan and Yemen — which are difficult for U.S. troops to access — is one of his finest accomplishments.” A May 29 story in the New York Times described Obama’s intimate involvement in the drone campaign, right down to his approval of specific people for elimination, offered up on what’s come to be known as the kill list. One Administration official insists to TIME that the President’s personal role has been exaggerated. Obama “outlines the parameters of our counterterrorism policy. He does not make the call on every action,” says the official. Even the parameters are lethal: since Obama took office, Pentagon and CIA drones have killed dozens of suspected terrorists this way. It’s doubtful that Romney would really flunk Obama for that. Indeed, it would be surprising if Romney didn’t pursue the same policy if elected President. But it’s not quite as risk-free as it seems.
Drones offer many clear advantages over more-conventional forces. They are more precise, limiting (though not eliminating) the collateral damage that results from aerial bombing and ground operations. They are relatively cheap. And they bring no direct risk to American troops.
That’s a big contrast to the military strategy that dazzled Washington just a few years ago. Counterinsurgency, as tailored for Iraq and Afghanistan, called for a hearts-and-minds campaign to win over populations in conflict zones through face-to-face interaction and infrastructure projects. Obama’s first Pentagon budget funded equipment and training to support a long-term focus on the doctrine. But counterinsurgency is slow and expensive, requires vast manpower and — most important — has had disappointing results in Afghanistan. With budgets shrinking and voters restless, the doctrine looks finished in Afghanistan and has lost its cachet in military circles.
Just consider the latest chapter in the career of David Petraeus. The Army general is an intellectual godfather of modern counterinsurgency theory, which he helped carry out when he was the top U.S. commander in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since September, when Petraeus took over the CIA, he has focused on the agency’s terrorist-hunting drone campaign. Having once obsessed over winning over locals through close contact and knowledge of tribal customs, Petraeus now refines the art of bombing from the air without so much as a boot on the ground.
Yet civilians in those areas know whose missiles are exploding in their villages and occasionally killing their children. That’s where things get complicated. Drones may be a cheap and convenient military tool. But they risk dangerous blowback if they alienate and radicalize local populations. Recent reporting from Yemen by the Washington Post and PBS suggests that civilian casualties of U.S. drone strikes there may be engendering support for al-Qaeda, which is turning the unstable nation into perhaps its most important base of operations. (Yemen has been the source of several attempted terrorist strikes on the U.S. in the past few years.) U.S. drone strikes are also wildly unpopular in Pakistan, where anti-Americanism confounds our larger foreign policy goals, like ensuring the security of that country’s nuclear weapons and ending its government’s support of some Taliban factions. The danger can blow across our own borders. Faisal Shahzad, the failed 2010 Times Square bomber, says he sought revenge for innocent victims of U.S. drones in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan.
There’s little question that drones have ravaged al-Qaeda. The concern is that there’s always a No. 3 man ready to fill the role of the last No. 2 to have been “martyred.” But many national-security pros, including Obama’s first Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, now warn that we’re growing addicted to the simplicity of drones without carefully considering their side effects.
The alternatives — like cajoling and training foreign militaries to do more terrorist hunting for us — carry their own challenges and risks. But the risk of drone blowback is real enough that the presidential candidates ought to address it. When it comes to candidly debating the new face of American warfare, they both earn an F.