Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Wait One Minute

Every now and again, I stumble onto an article or opinion piece that stops me in my proverbial tracks. Marc Thiessen’s piece in Foreign Policy is one such item.

I think somewhere underlying Thiessen’s article is a deep skepticism of the drone campaign. He’s not alone. Jane Mayer put together a wonderful piece in the New Yorker last fall that did a good job of discussing the use of drones in Pakistan and their severe limitations. Notably, Mayer highlighted the high numbers of non-targeted individuals killed for each targeted individual eliminated. Setting aside human rights concerns, I question the efficacy of the drone campaign in light of our broader regional goals. I particularly wonder about the drone campaign encouraging otherwise neutral individuals to take up arms against the Pakistani state or the United States.

Thiessen, though, uses the drone campaign to accuse the President of endangering the United States by depriving the US of “vital intelligence” and of “shying away from the hard decisions needed to protect the United States.”

This is nonsense. Of course it is a truism that dead men tell no tales. But for Thiessen’s thesis to be true, the United States would have to have available to it a capability to capture and question the people targeted by the drones. Now, despite the hypocritical critiques offered by some, the problem with this premise is not the questioning, it’s the capturing.

The vast majority of the individuals being blown up are in the lawless FATA region of Pakistan. Many of the targets are affiliated not with Al-Qaeda or the Afghan Taliban but with the Pakistani Taliban. Whatever the arrangement the United States government currently has with Pakistan, it is clear that Pakistan does not want US soldiers on its territory—judging by the vitriolic reactions last week, American trainers are not even welcome.

Though Thiessen would have you believe that the Obama administration has put the United States in danger by eliminating a proposed CIA program to kill terrorists because it had an ethereal capture component, this is merely a straw man. This capability never existed. The Bush administration proposed these teams in 2002 and never managed to make them operational—in fact, I have questioned what this says about the US paramilitary operations previously. The last time the United States had a capability that resembles what Thiessen puts forward was, according to Steve Coll, under the Clinton administration, when the US put teams in the field to kill Osama bin Laden. Even then, though, the kill order was never given and the teams were never utilized. Thiessen thus presents a false choice between the use of drones, and a non-existent capture ability.

While I think there are legitimate questions to be raised about the use of drones and our strategic objectives, Thiessen’s piece represent an incredible contortion of the Obama-is-Soft-on-Terrorism narrative.

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