January 09, 2010

The Wall Street Journal, and Drones

A few months ago, I allowed my housemate's subscription to the Washington Post to lapse and used my Delta Skymiles to buy a subscription to the Wall Street Journal. I quite like the Journal, even though its news side has perhaps grown unncessarily partisan in the past year, because it forces me to read articles about subjects -- namely, finance -- that I would not normally study. Also, longtime friends Yochi Dreazen and Charles Levinson report for the paper, and Jason Gay's sports column is one of the funniest things you'll read in any given week. (He had a line about the Washington Wizards' "shooting percentage" that caused me to snort oatmeal last week.)

Today, though, my newfound friends at the Journal mention me in the lead editorial in such a way that I need to slightly correct the record. In a rare editorial praising the president, the Journal's editorial board gives a big thumbs up to drone strikes against al-Qaeda but add:

"Critics such as counterinsurgency writers David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum allege that drones have killed hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians."

The Journal is not saying "Kilcullen and Exum are idiots", but they are, I think, twisting an argument the two of us have raised.

To begin, the Journal seems most concerned -- understandably, I might add -- with how many civilians are actually being killed. The reason Dave and I cited open source reporting out of Pakistan is because we were more concerned with how many civilians are perceived to be dying in drone strikes. There's a difference there, and it goes back to my larger concern that drone strikes are a tactic unaccompanied by a more comprehensive strategy incorporating an effective strategic communications plan. Here's what we wrote:

Press reports suggest that over the last three years drone strikes have killed about 14 terrorist leaders. But, according to Pakistani sources, they have also killed some 700 civilians. This is 50 civilians for every militant killed, a hit rate of 2 percent — hardly “precision.” American officials vehemently dispute these figures, and it is likely that more militants and fewer civilians have been killed than is reported by the press in Pakistan.

I'm not saying drone strikes cannot be part of the solution (as Dave and I have said time and time again), but I am saying that right now, they're a part of the problem. If I thought drone strikes were incorporated into a coherent strategy rather than a convenient tactic substituting for a strategy, two thirds of my objections would go away.

Just this week, a friend of mine asked me to participate in a panel discussion on drone strikes, and here is how I responded:

I would be up for that as long as no one expects me to be some anti-drone fundamentalist. I have serious reservations about our reliance on drone strikes as a tactic and think they need to be integrated into a more comprehensive strategy. And I think the military should do them, mainly so that we would have the kinds of checks and balances and accountability we (should) get when the U.S. military executes an operation. I’m sure folks in Langley might want my head on a platter for saying this, but I wish our nation’s intelligence services would stop trying to be so operational and would stick to gathering intelligence.

This concern, about which agency or department is the most appropriate agency or department for carrying out these strikes, is a question left unaddressed by the Journal's editorial but one that I think should be asked. I fret drone strikes have become a way for a certain agency in the U.S. government to justify its budget share and relevance in the fight against al-Qaeda. 

I got my first taste of everyone in the 202 area code hating me when Dave and I wrote this op-ed on drone strikes seven months ago and was told by many that I should avoid writing such things lest I hurt my career. (Cue laughter from the readership.) But I am glad there is now a real and more mature debate on the strikes, their merits and their limits today than there was then. And if our op-ed helped start a debate, then I figure I'm doing my job -- even if it annoys the administration and the intelligence community.