The Common Good

DRONE WATCH: From Counterinsurgency to Drones

Several weeks ago, the Washington Post reported that the CIA was proposing a “significant expansion of the agency’s fleet of armed drones.” The proposal was championed by Director David Petraeus to allow the agency to continue its attacks in Pakistan and Yemen, as well as shift drones to other perceived threats.

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With Petraeus’ sudden departure, there are calls for a real debate on the role of drones. Questions and opposition to the drone assassination campaign were already growing, now there are more.

Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network, writes in U.S. News & World Report of the need for guidelines on drone use.

“Drones and other forms of remote-control warfare aren't going away. The technological developments that empowered them won't be undone. The very real organizations that do seek to threaten Americans and U.S. interests aren't going to fold up on their own. But we do need, urgently, some theory around which we create legal, ethical, and practical guidelines for remote-control warfare, based on what we know about human nature, and what we have learned about human response to our efforts to date."

Robert Wright points out in The Atlantic that the real scandal of David Petraeus is the militarization of the CIA, particularly the drone war:

“These drone strikes are a radical departure from America's traditional use of violence in pursuit of national security. In contrast to things like invading or bombing a country as part of some well-defined and plausibly finite campaign, our drone strike program is diffuse and, by all appearances, endless. Every month, God knows how many people are killed in the name of the US in any of several countries, and God knows how many of these people were actually militants, or how many of the actual militants were actual threats to the US, or how much hatred the strikes are generating or how much of that hatred will eventually morph into anti-American terrorism. It might behoove us, before we accept this nauseating spectacle as a permanent feature of life, to fill in as many of these blanks as possible.”

Michael Crowley writes in TIME that Petraeus was initially the strong defender of counterinsurgency doctrine in Iraq and then Afghanistan. But he lost patience, and came to be the leader in pushing drone attacks and Special Forces operations, almost the opposite doctrine.

“Counterinsurgency requires huge numbers of troops to protect and build relationships with local populations. Drone-based counterterrorism strategy requires few if any boots on the ground. Death is rained down anonymously, usually with no explanation or apology for collateral damage. This is the new American strategy. Hearts and minds have been replaced by drones and SEALs. Working a tribal council is a less valuable skill than piloting a Predator. By the end of his career — in a country exhausted by war and slashing its budget — Petraeus had embraced that shift. He had lowered his profile too far to become the drone war’s public face. But to those watching closely, the Petraeus Doctrine had morphed into something different. Counterinsurgency was finished.”

Vali Nasr, dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, in Bloomberg View, thinks the real debate needed following the attack in Libya is whether the U.S. has the right counterterrorism strategy.

The administration claims its elimination of al-Qaeda leaders using drones and special operations forces has crippled the organization. Has it, really? Drones are a low-cost, low- risk way to wage war. They give the impression a country can defeat terrorism without engaging in costly military campaigns, economic development or nation-building. The administration insisted the policy was working, and the country bought it. This might have dulled the instinct to better protect facilities such as the U.S. mission in Benghazi. Taking seriously the threat of violent extremism in newly democratic Libya would have challenged the administration’s claim that it was defeating the jihadists. Yet history tells us that assassination alone isn’t an effective strategy.” 

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