Drone Czar Hit by Surgical Journalistic Strike

If you're wondering how screwed up America's counter-terrorism policy is but you don't have time to do a lot of reading on the subject, you're in luck. Just go to Foreign Policy and read Micah Zenko's fairly short and fairly brutal piece on John Brennan, President Obama's "closest advisor for intelligence and counterterrorism issues" and the man who has been described as Obama's "priest" when it comes to the question of whom to smite with drone strikes.

Zenko's article has all the surgical precision commonly associated with drone strikes.

Here, for example, is a quote from Brennan:

"Contrary to conventional wisdom, we see little evidence that [drone strikes] are generating widespread anti-American sentiment or recruits for AQAP [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula]. In fact, we see the opposite: Our Yemeni partners are more eager to work with us.... In short, targeted strikes against the most senior and most dangerous AQAP terrorists are not the problem -- they are part of the solution."

And here is Zenko's commentary:

[A]ctual Yemenis and journalists reporting from the country (see here, here , and here) say that Yemenis hate drones strikes. There is also a strong correlation between targeted killings in Yemen since December 2009 -- primarily conducted by U.S. drones -- and increased anger toward the United States and sympathy or allegiance to AQAP. In 2010, the Obama administration described AQAP as "several hundred al Qaeda members"; two years later, it increased to "more than a thousand members." Now, AQAP has a "few thousand members." After a drone strike reportedly killed 13 civilians in early September, Yemeni activist Nasr Abdullah noted: "I would not be surprised if a hundred tribesmen joined the lines of al Qaeda as a result of the latest drone mistake."

In light of this growth in al Qaeda membership amid a hail of drone strikes, you might wonder about the ambitiousness of this Brennan aspiration: "We're not going to rest until al Qaeda the organization is destroyed and is eliminated from areas in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Africa, and other areas. We're determined to do that."

And, even if America's own experience weren't generating reasons to doubt our ability to accomplish this goal with a drone-a-centric approach, there are, Zenko notes, plenty of other reasons to doubt it:

The mantra of U.S. military officials who oversee counterterrorism or counterinsurgency policies is "you can't capture or kill your way out" of problems caused by those using violence to achieve political objectives. It is a slogan based in the real-world experiences of many military commanders and much academic research. For example, a 2008 Rand Corp. study, How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qa'ida , examined 268 terrorist groups that ended between 1968 and 2006. The authors -- including Seth Jones, former advisor to U.S. Special Operations Command -- found that the vast majority of terrorist groups were eliminated because they either were infiltrated by local police and intelligence agencies (40 percent) or reached a peaceful political agreement with the government (43 percent).

Meanwhile, military force -- think drones and Navy SEAL raids -- eliminated terrorist groups only 7 percent of the time. The reason? "[O]nce the situation in an area becomes untenable for terrorists, they will simply transfer their activity to another area, and the problem remains unresolved." This is certainly the case in Pakistan, where the CIA drone campaign has killed suspected senior al Qaeda officials, mid-tier operatives, and more than 1,000 low-level militants. The Associated Press reported on Sept. 3 that, according to two senior U.S. officials, drone strikes have made would-be militants "skittish, prompting some to leave Pakistan for other battlefields in Syria, Yemen, Iraq or their home countries." Reportedly , some 250 militants have fled in just the past month to fight in Syria, depressing the price of secondhand weapons in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

Although drone strikes have arguably been effective at killing some senior al Qaeda members in Pakistan, the numbers elsewhere suggest there is a lot of killing yet ahead. The State Department's " Country Reports on Terrorism 2011" lists the following estimated strengths of al Qaeda franchises (outside Afghanistan and Pakistan): "1,000-2,000" in Iraq, "under a thousand fighters" in the Islamic Maghreb, "several thousand members" in Somalia, and "a few thousand members" in the Arabian Peninsula (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP). Can U.S. drone strikes really kill them all? Even so, it is exceedingly unlikely that all individuals affiliated with al Qaeda would be "destroyed and eliminated" without expanding the scope of the problem. As Sudarsan Raghavan reported from Yemen, "AQAP operatives killed in U.S. drone attacks are quickly replaced."

At the risk of oversimplifying: an "effective" drone strike campaign kills mainly people who are easily replaced, meanwhile creating more hatred of America and thus boosting terrorist recruitment in both the short and long run. And, as a bonus: the strikes scatter terrorists to new arenas where the self-defeating cycle can be repeated! If this is a strategy for eliminating terrorists, what would a strategy for creating them look like?

I recommend reading the entire article.

Presented by

Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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