Stanley McChrystal's Complicated Love Affair With Drones

The retired U.S. general gives a reluctant endorsement of the lethal U.S. drone program.

Prior to receiving a standing ovation before an elite crowd at the Aspen Ideas Festival, retired U.S. General Stanley McChrystal gave a blunt endorsement of the U.S. drone war: "We should be using drones a lot."

It seemed like a straightforward affirmation of the Obama administration's use of predator drones, but an interesting thing happened as soon as the words left his mouth: He walked them back. "We need to understand what drones are not."

Few people are more intimately familiar with the secretive and highly lethal program than McChrystal, who, as head of the military's Special Operations Command, oversaw a dramatic escalation of drone strikes in Afghanistan prior to his infamous departure from the military for trashing the Obama administration in an interview with Rolling Stone. Now, as the drone wars face increasing media scrutiny, it appears that McChrystal also has his doubts.

Notes from the Aspen Ideas Festival -- See full coverage
"I hope we won't be a country that uses [drones] to the exclusion of" trained personnel on the ground, he said. He noted the importance of U.S. forces living in foreign countries and learning the local languages. To hit home his point, he described a chilling account of the wrongful execution of a civilan farmer in Afghanistan by a U.S. drone strike. "We fired a missile and killed him and found out he was a farmer," McChrystal said. After the assassination, McChystal replayed the event to Afghan President Hamid Karzai on a laptop who told McChystal the farmer was engaged in routine irrigation work just prior to the missile strike--an activity the U.S. military should've been familiar with. "You have to know these sorts of things," McChrystal told the crowd.

McChyrstal seemed to suggest that the war on Islamic militants couldn't be fought solely from the skies, which should be worrying for non-interventionists observing the U.S. drone war in Yemen. According to a blockbuster article by The Washington Post's Sudarsan Raghavan in May, as many as 21 missile attacks were launched on suspected al-Qaeda militants in southern Yemen since January and the unforeseen ramifications of those attacks have been significant:

An unintended consequence of the attacks has been a marked radicalization of the local population. The evidence of radicalization emerged in more than 20 interviews with tribal leaders, victims' relatives, human rights activists and officials from four provinces in southern Yemen where U.S. strikes have targeted suspected militants. They described a strong shift in sentiment toward militants affiliated with the transnational network's most active wing, al-Qaeda in the ­Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.

"The drone strikes have not helped either the United States or Yemen," said Sultan al-Barakani, who was a top adviser to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

It's long been known that the CIA and the U.S. military have been deeply involved in coordinating the drone attacks in Yemen. However, with the concerns McChrystal conveyed today it sounds as if a larger on-the-ground contingent is necessary to prevent the kinds of mistakes and blowback so common in the Afghanistan drone war experience. If we can't fight al-Qaeda solely from the skies, where will that lead us in Yemen?