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The Bee and the Hive

October 28, 2009

I finished reading Jane Mayer’s excellent piece in the New Yorker titled “A Predator War” – on the issue of our strategy of using drones to kill al-Qaida and Taliban HVTs.

MQ1B Predator

MQ1B Predator - armed with 2 Hellfire missiles

I wanted to highlight these selected parts from Mayer’s article (full text available with subscription) which I think bring up key argumentative points on the use of Predator and Reaper drones by the CIA, namely that we are using these tools to conduct bona-fide assassinations, something that is officially illegal for CIA to do under Executive Order 12333.

How should we approach this policy that has proved effective in terms of tangible results (killing Taliban leaders, driving many underground and  imposing serious mobility limitations) while it has yet to be conclusive in terms of our grand strategic goals vis a vis Pakistan and FATA

some select pieces from Mayer’s article (I highly suggest to the reader to pick up the Oct.26, 2009 issue of New Yorker).

Peter W.Singer, author of “Wired for War”, a recent book about the robotics revolution in modern combat, argues that the drone technology is worryingly “seductive”, because it creates the perception that war can be “costless”. Cut off from the realities of the bombings in Pakistan, Americans have been insulated from the human toll, as well as from the political and moral consequences. Nearly all the victims have remained faceless, and the damage caused by the bombings has remained unseen. In contrast to Gaza, where the targeted killing of Hamas fighters by the Israeli military has been extensively documented – making clear that the collateral damage, and the loss of civilian life can be severe – Pakistan’s tribal areas have become largely forbidden territory for media organizations. As a result, no videos of a drone attack in progress have been released, and only a few photographs of the immediate aftermath of a Predator strike have been published.

Its also interesting to note how the perception to ‘extra-judicial’ killings have shifted since the attacks of 9/11. I remember the Israeli drone strikes on Hamas terrorists (killing Hamas ‘spiritual leader’ Sheikh Yassin and another top leader Abdel Rantisi) and the moral indignation at such strategy not only from the usual European channels but from many here in the United States. Today, the CIA routinely carries out such strikes on high value targets. Times, as Bob Dylan famously sang, they are a-changin’.

The advent of the Predator targeted killing program “is really a sea change”, says Gary Solis, who teaches at Georgetown University’s Law Center and recently retired from running the law program at US Military Academy. “Not only would we have expressed abhorrence of such a policy a few years ago, we did.”

In July 2001, two months before Al-Qaida attacks on New York and Washington profoundly altered America’s mindset, the US denounced Israel’s use of targeted killings against Palestinian terrorists. The American Ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk said at the time, “The United States government is very clearly on record as against targeted assassinations.. they are extrajudicial killings, and we do not support that”.


Seven years later, there is no longer any doubt that the targeted killing has become official US policy. “The things we were complaining about from Israel a few years ago, we now embrace,” Solis says. Now he notes, nobody in the government calls it ‘assassination’.

MQ9 Reaper

MQ9 Reaper - larger version of Predator, can carry 15x amount of ordnance than MQ1B

Bruce Riedel, who has been deeply involved in tehse debates during the past few years, sees the choices facing Obama as exceedingly hard. “Is the drone prgoram helping or hurting?” he asked. “It’s a tough question. These are not cost-free operations”.  He likened the drone attacks to “going after a beehive, one bee at a time.” The problem is that inevitably, “the hive will always produce more bees.” But, he said, “the only pressure currently being put on Pakistan and Afghanistan is the drones. ” He added, “its really all we’ve got to disrupt Al-Qaida. The reason the Administration continues to use it is obvious, it doesn’t really have anything else.

In the end, the cold hard fact is that there is no substitution for human intelligence and human assets on the ground,  the middle of the AO. We are making the big mistake of using the drone attacks as a grand strategic goal, and not as a tool of a wider strategy, working together with other tools like human intelligence, tribal affiliation, loyalty and relationship building through jirgas and face-to-face meetings, and human terrain mapping.

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