The Rise of the Drones

In 2005, atop a crumbling building in Mosul, Iraq, with gunfire popping across the city, the U.S. Army officer next to me put a dusty finger to his lips, indicating he was about to reveal something that should be kept between us. He pointed skyward and whispered, “We’ve got some extra help today.”

My first reaction was to laugh. Not because I disputed the value of the war-fighting technology in the air, but because I couldn’t believe anyone in Mosul considered it a secret. The unmanned drone aircraft flying over the city was clearly visible and as loud as a lawn mower.

Five years later, the CIA’s “secret” mission in Pakistan is equally obvious. Since 2008, the U.S. has launched more than 100 strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas; U.S. officials, speaking on background, claim the strikes have killed more than 400 militants. The Pakistanis have professed outrage over the strikes, saying they infringe on their sovereignty and lead to civilian deaths.

Of course, there’s been no such uproar in the U.S. Should we be surprised? Traditionally, when a nation went to war, it had to invest its blood and treasure, but today’s joystick-wielding drone pilots can launch a missile strike from here at home, then hop in the minivan to meet the wife and kids for dinner. War couldn’t get any more impersonal.

CIA Director Leon Panetta, without acknowledging the extent of the program, has called it “very effective.” But despite the drones’ appeal (except among fighter pilots, one of whom recently asked me, “How would you feel if you were being replaced by robots?”), they do not offer a grand strategy for defeating al-Qaeda. As former CIA officer Bruce Riedel cautions, “The drones are a lot like attacking a beehive, one bee at a time. You can kill some very important bees, but the hive is going to remain.”

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