Drones and Assassinations: Our Ghost War in Afghanistan Is Not Real War

Once our soldiers leave the theater, all that will remain is a clinical and codified policy of assassination writ large

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A man carries a bag over his shoulder as he pulls a suitcase in Kabul
On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that Pakistani officials, eyeing President Obama's spurious timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan, are "watching as the war, in their view, goes badly and are waiting for their share of the Afghan spoils." The report added that Pakistan's generals and spymasters "appear to have little incentive to bargain away their demands or to modify their side of the ledger," confident that the president lacks the political will to see the war through. In December, U.S. forces will begin withdrawing from Afghanistan. Those combat troops deployed as part of the surge will come home in September 2012. If there is a strategic military reason for that particular date, David Petraeus is unaware of it. David Axelrod might have a keener insight on the matter.

Last month, Stanley McChrystal told the Council on Foreign Relations that we're just over the 50 percent mark in Afghanistan. The retired general noted that where we're providing security, "The change has been stunning. The ability to move crops around, the ability to apply governance and whatnot, has been good." But that requires boots on the ground and men with rifles. Where the Coalition footprint is light, meanwhile, the Taliban "campaign of assassination is terrifying to people, because it makes everyone feel under threat." During his recent confirmation hearings to take the helm at CIA, General Petraeus called the president's withdrawal plan "a more aggressive formulation, if you will, in terms of the timeline than what we had recommended." In Petraeus-speak, this was the equivalent of banging his shoe on the table.

Ten years ago, who would have thought that victory in Afghanistan meant luring the Taliban to the bargaining table? And who would have been surprised when the Taliban then assassinated our proxy negotiator? (There's no need to reach back ten years; in 2010, the Taliban said point blank that they intended to kill members of the High Peace Council.) With the military security option all but exhausted (and thus unavailable to support the remarkable work of civil affairs teams), and diplomacy a hopeless endeavor, the United States and Afghanistan can now look forward to an eternity of Predator drones primed with Hellfire missiles.

It would be hard to improve on essays by Jane Mayer and Conor Friedersdorf on the immorality of drone warfare. But drone warfare is what we're left with. Sherman famously said, "There's many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory but it is all hell." Small communities know that hell and reel when their sons become men, become infantrymen, and never return from third world wastelands. Military spouses know that hell when chaplains in Class A uniforms knock at the door, hats in hand. Combat veterans know that hell better than anyone. And collectively -- oftentimes tragically -- the results of war inform our culture and serve as society's most effective moderating influence. There are many good reasons to go to war, but when we don't, it's often because we know how terrible a thing it is.

Humanity can be found and understood in the best and worst of war. But drones change the equation. It's the worst kind of war, a frightening new enterprise that we've embraced, celebrate, and laugh about. But there's something dishonorable about it. It's the aerial equivalent of roadside IEDs. It's the only kind of war America seems willing to fight anymore, and that is what we're leaving behind in Afghanistan. To be clear, "fairness" should never be an objective of war. But almost by definition, this is not war. Once our soldiers leave the theater, all that will remain is a clinical and codified policy of assassination writ large, with virtually no public scrutiny. It won't be front-page news when drones vaporize innocents, and it won't be front-page news when drones vaporize al-Qaeda operatives, because we've got no skin in the game. It's just robots hunting ghosts.

How long will Afghans agree to that? Are we even asking? Or will this silent non-war be negotiated with our man in Kabul, who, until he was convenient to this administration, was deemed corrupt and incompetent? And how long will Pakistan allow missiles to materialize from nowhere and leave behind craters and corpses? How about the next government, and what are we prepared to do if they say no? The White House has established a precedent that borders are just fine for the people at Rand McNally, but meaningless in the context of drone warfare. Consent of the Congress is a quaint relic; as proven in Libya, the president doesn't need authorization so long as we get a nice snuff film at the end.

Afghanistan is a war worth seeing through. Last week, I spoke with Michael Yon, a writer who's spent four years, cumulatively, in Iraq and Afghanistan -- three of those in combat. According to Yon, as withdrawal moves from concept to reality, "Many troops see their actions will be for naught. They've done their parts and have succeeded when properly resourced, but they see the presidential decisions for what they are. The unit that I last embedded with, 4-4 Cav, was clearly making progress and they know it, but they also see the light at the end of the tunnel is turned off, and that's due to politics. We waited a long time to get serious here, and never got totally serious."

At any rate, says Yon, "The war is largely forgotten. Soldiers who have been going back on leave and are shocked when many Americans don't realize that there is a no-kidding war going on here. I've done my best to highlight some of them." He adds, "The trajectory of the war favors the enemies. If the president precipitously reduces our footprint, the war will be lost. The good news (for somebody) is that most Americans don't seem to realize that we are still in a war, so they won't realize that we lost."

But at least we fought a war that could be forgotten. As America turns to drone technology, more than ever we will be fighting wars we never knew about in the first place.