My boss, Steve Coll has a interesting piece over at the New Yorker blog on the use of drones in Pakistan. Responding to a weekend op-ed by David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum in the NYT, which argues that the drone attacks are counter-productive because they are inflaming Pakistani public opinion and destabilizing the country, Coll says that both men are ignoring the domestic political importance of the US military going after Al Qaeda's leadership:
Even if direct U.S. action is grinding at Al Qaeda’s middle lists, it
is at least responsive to the political, moral, and legal obligations
of any American President—namely, to identify and respond to any “clear
and present danger,” as national security law standards put it, to U.S.
lives and interests. All of Obama’s intelligence and military advisers
have identified Al Qaeda’s still-active planning of terrorist violence
from Pakistani soil, led by Bin Laden and Zawahiri, as such a clear and
Coll gets to the nub of the problem I keep coming back to with the anti-drone argument - Kilcullen and Exum seem to place far greater importance on public opinion in Pakistan rather than the need to target Al Qaeda's leadership. Coll makes the argument that this is backwards from a domestic political standpoint; but I tend to think that from a national interests standpoint Kill/Ex's view might be wrong as well. For example, they say:
Having Osama bin Laden in one’s sights is one thing. Devoting precious
resources to his capture or death, rather than focusing on protecting
the Afghan and Pakistani populations, is another. The goal should be to
isolate extremists from the communities in which they live. The best
way to do this is to adopt policies that build local partnerships. Al
Qaeda and its Taliban allies must be defeated by indigenous forces —
not from the United States, and not even from Punjab, but from the
parts of Pakistan in which they now hide.
I'm not so sure about this. Will protecting the Afghan and Pakistan populations necessarily make America safer - I think the jury is still out on that one. (The recent Pakistani counterattack in the Swat Valley has not necessarily made those more than 1 million refugees safe, but in the short-term it certainly has made the US feel a lot safer about Pakistan's political stability and dealt a serious blow to the Taliban). And is the course that Kill/Ex are advocating realistic in the near-term? Sure, it would be better if indigenous forces wiped out Al Qaeda, but in the 8 years since 9/11 that hasn't happened and I wonder how long the US should be prepared to wait for Pakistan to achieve that goal, particularly if we have the means within our midst to hasten that day. Should the goal of building up Pakistan's COIN capabilities and its effectiveness at governing the Swat Valley come at the expense of more direct and immediate US interests (even if they exacerbate Pakistan's problems in the short-term)?
Also, both men seem to minimize the importance of killing Osama bin Laden and decapitating the top Al Qaeda leadership. They use the experience of wasted resources being used to chase after Zarqawi in Iraq as a reason not to aggressively go after OBL. But my gosh, Zarqawi is not Osama bin Laden!
The reason why his elimination didn't end the violence in Iraq is because we were in the midst, not of an insurgency, but a civil war. There were others who could take Zarqawi's place - that is certainly not the case if we knock off Bin Laden. Killing OBL and other members of Al Qaeda's top leadership won't end the terrorist threat but it will certainly recast how we think about the war on terror. As Coll puts it, "If Bin Laden and Zawahiri are removed, it will be much easier not only
to alter the rhetorical terms of American strategy in the
Afghanistan-Pakistan region but also to rewrite the entire global
narrative of counter terrorism inherited from the Bush Administration."
I wonder here if the COIN-advocates have become so wedded to the perceived success of their tactics in Iraq - and the efficacy of population-centric COIN - that they are confusing what precisely is in America's national interests. Is the focus on COIN tactics coming at the expense of what should be the US counter-terrorism strategy in Af/Pak?
America's interests in Af/Pak boil down to degrading Al Qaeda's capabilities, decapitating their leadership and preventing them from attacking America again. I'm still having a hard time understanding how, for example, nation building in Afghanistan or Pakistan achieves that goal in the near-term - or even that the US presence there can ensure that this actually occurs over the long-term.
Of course, the US has another goal for the region: preventing a Taliban or Islamic takeover of Pakistan and ensuring that Al Qaeda is prevented from building a base of operations in Afghanistan. Kill/Ex argue that the drone attacks are further destabilizing both countries. But then shouldn't we figure out how to conduct the drone attacks more effectively rather than ending them altogether? Kill/Ex seem to be arguing that protecting population must trump other larger strategic considerations. I'm not sure I would see it that way; and I'm nearly positive that no American president (particularly one who has to run for re-election) will see it that way.
Can't we have a modicum of stability in Af/Pak - or at the very least ensure that US interests are protected -- without necessarily devoting fulsome resources to protecting the populations in both countries? Of course, this is many ways the crux of the COIN/CT divide.
This is not to say that Kill/Ex are wrong about the drone attacks. Perhaps the strategic benefits don't outweigh the costs - and maybe there is a better way to calibrate the program so it is more effective. My problem is not necessarily with the conclusion they draw, but the road they take to get there - and the way they balance US interests in the region.
Or perhaps I'm drawing the wrong conclusion . . . commentors please feel free to weigh in.