April 16, 2010

On Drone Strikes

Tom Ricks is the one who usually gets the interns at CNAS to do the spade work on his blog, but I was talking with intern Matt Irvine about an event he attended on drone strikes recently and, struck by some of the things Bruce Riedel in particular said (like the fact that he was sceptical of any and all figures produced by the U.S. government on the strikes), I asked Matt to write up a synopsis for the blog (since it also nicely dovetails with another good debate we had this week).

Is there a better place to discuss human intelligence, covert action and targeted assassination than the International Spy Museum? Probably not.


So it was fitting for the museum to host a discussion of the CIA’s Predator drone program in Pakistan on Wednesday. The panel of Tom Parker, Peter Bergen and Bruce Riedel, offered some of the best commentary and analysis of the Predator program to date.


Parker, from Amnesty International, started off with a healthy dose of skepticism about U.S. government data, citing frequent inaccurate battlefield reporting. Riedel concurred by saying, "I am skeptical of numbers ... I am skeptical of people who claim they have found the solution -- I see a lot of hubris right now."


Commenting on recent trends in Pakistan, Bergen argued that U.S. and Pakistani interests are aligned now more than ever and that the program has compromised the safe haven in the FATA. Nonetheless, only 9% of Pakistanis have a favorable view of the program. Later on, Riedel made the point clear, “Are the Pakistanis comfortable with this? Hell no.” But the program goes on.


The program “only operates because of old fashion spying,” leading targeted groups to worry about “traitors in their midst,” says Riedel. This is a legacy of a “human intelligence infrastructure” established during the late Bush administration.


Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst, took issue with Leon Panetta’s 2009 claim that the drone strikes are “the only game in town.” They aren’t, and that’s a good thing. The strikes, according to Riedel, are part of a broader global strategy to fight al Qaeda.


The drone program, as analyzed by Bergen at the New America Foundation, is not just targeting al Qaeda. Instead, it is attacking a larger Pakistani Taliban network. According to Riedel, “al Qaeda operates in a syndicate of groups with no single leader, no single agenda.”


Citing the cases of abu Dujanah al Khorasani, who carried out the December 30th suicide attack at a CIA base in Khost, and Ilyas Kashmiri, the organizer of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, Riedel argued that individuals operate between one group and another…“This is a multilayered, intricate and operationally driven syndicate.”


The drone program is just part of Obama’s broader strategy against al Qaeda, which is four parted: First, aggressively pursue al Qaeda and its allies in the safe haven. Second, go after al Qaeda’s financing in new ways. Third, diplomatically engage the world to isolate al Qaeda and its supporters. Tellingly, this week’s nuclear summit’s punch-line was the al Qaeda threat. Third, attack the al Qaeda narrative and ideology. According to Riedel, President Obama’s Cairo speech was a point for point refutation of the bin Laden-Zawahiri narrative. This is one of the reasons why the President is pushing heavily on the Israel-Palestine peace process.


Al Qaeda and its allies have adapted to counter the drone program in the last year. Recent plots, including Ft. Hood and the Christmas Day demonstrate that al Qaeda has realized they “don’t need a home run, they’ll single, they’ll take a bunt.” The counter-attack in Khost and the Mumbai attacks are two additional responses to the drone program. The first struck at the human intelligence networks feeding the targeting operation and the CIA personnel closest to it. The second was a harbinger for the future, an attempt to inflame India-Pakistan tensions and divert attention from the FATA. Riedel predicted another major terrorist operation in India in the next six months.


Metrics for success are often blurry but Riedel tried to offer some. First, post-mortem tributes to killed jihadists offer measures of effectiveness. Second, al Qaeda propaganda can be measured. Most interestingly, Ayman al Zawahiri, who used to be al Qaeda’s “Chatty Cathy” has been silent since December 2009 (notably before the CIA base attack). “He may have left the FATA,” speculates Riedel. Third, the sophistication and frequency of al Qaeda and affiliate operations. And fourth, the presence of al Qaeda operatives in Pakistani cities. Are leaders leaving the FATA?


No matter their merits, the use of drones is unlikely to expand beyond the tribal areas, says Riedel. FATA is unique, “you couldn’t do what we’re doing here in other parts of the world.” The FATA has a 5th century infrastructure and is not urbanized. Expanding programs into Baluchistan would increase collateral damage and cross Pakistani red lines.


Finally, Riedel cautioned against becoming “drone addicted…This is going to be a war of attrition,” but there will be no USS Missouri. The Predator is a tactical instrument to degrade current enemy capabilities and ranks, and must fit within a comprehensive regional strategy to counter al Qaeda and its allies.