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In case you missed it or have not forked over the money to buy a copy of the New Yorker, Jane Mayer -- who is even more powerful than Nate -- has written perhaps the very best piece on the use of unmanned drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (A good summary can be found here.) There are all kinds of good questions this piece explores, like why Americans get so fired up over targeted killing programs (allegedly cooked up by the Vice President) which utilize special operations forces but do not get too bothered by targeted killing programs that actually exist and use remotely piloted drones. Or what happens when the Central Intelligence Agency takes over what are essentially military operations without the check and balances -- like the UCMJ -- that govern the military when they conduct such operations?
Since Dave Kilcullen and I have written a little bit about these strikes, Mayer asked me what I thought. She slightly mangled my quote, but here it is:
“Neither Kilcullen nor I is a fundamentalist—we’re not saying drones are not part of the strategy. But we are saying that right now they are part of the problem. If we use tactics that are killing people’s brothers and sons, not to mention their sisters and wives, we can work at cross-purposes with insuring that the tribal population doesn’t side with the militants. Using the Predator is a tactic, not a strategy.”
What I actually said was that while drone strikes were part of the problem, they can also be part of the solution. (Mayer thought I said "strategy" instead of solution.) I really think drone strike can be part of an effective, integrated CT and COIN strategy, but they cannot substitute for such a strategy, and I worry that the CIA is carrying out their own campaign in part because a) it's been getting kicked around so much since 9/11 that it is now overly focused on killing high-level al-Qaeda targets rather than gathering intelligence and that b) it's trying to justify and defend its budget through what it can claim is a successful program.
My worries have always centered around how the attacks are perceived on the ground, so it has been frustrating to read careless readers of our argument mistakenly assume we agree with open-source reporting out of Pakistan. To the contrary. I focus on Pakistani press reports because, in a war of perceptions, I am less concerned with how many civilians we are actually killing and more concerned with how many civilians the neutral population thinks we are killing.
There is something else about drones which bothers me. We are all slaves to culture, and I worry that a combination of a background in the light infantry, an upbringing in East Tennessee, and a classical education leaves me repulsed by the very idea of remote-controlled war. Mayer mangled another quote of mine (again, insignificantly), when I said, “As a classics major, I have a classical sense of what it means to be a warrior.” As I recall, I asked that more as a question and included a "maybe" somewhere in there. But maybe I do in fact have a cultural predisposition against drones. I know that undermines my other arguments somewhat, but I feel I should be honest with the readership about my own potential biases here.
I am not sure, on the other hand, that my bias does not have some use. One of the best parts in Pete Singer's latest book is when he relates how a U.S. Air Force officer excitedly told him how our technology has made our enemy like the humans in the Terminator movies, hiding below ground for fear of our technology.
"Yeah," Pete wisely asks, "but weren't the humans the heroes of those movies?"
At the very least, though, the classical warrior spirit is alive at 1301 Pennsylvania Avenue. Nate was also a classic geek, and I have been known to steal the Roman helmet Nagl inexplicably keeps in his office and wear it to staff meetings.
Update: Hahahaha. Perfect. Just perfect. Thanks, J.