EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
Much like the atom bomb was, the programme of targeted killings has been justified in the US for saving American lives. But did the government misread the consequences of covert action in a volatile country like Pakistan?
It’s yet to be determined what the long-term consequences of the drone strikes are, but there’s no question that the covert war in Pakistan has had a significant impact, both on America’s relationship with Islamabad and on the dynamics inside the country. Of course, the drone strikes by now are anything but “covert”, but the fact that they — at least officially — remain a secret allows all sides to advance their agendas even as reporters try to determine the basic facts. The civilian casualties from the drone strikes certainly have been much higher than the American government has ever acknowledged. There is growing public pressure on the civilian government in Islamabad to end the access to the drone flights but the powerful military and intelligence apparatus in Pakistan continues to permit the drone strikes. That doesn’t prevent some elements inside Pakistan’s government from fanning public anger about the strikes, and some American State Department officials I spoke to said that they very much wish that the programme could be public so they could openly discuss both the costs and benefits of the drone strikes.
How has the drone programme changed the conduct of future wars?
I think that what we are seeing in countries like Pakistan and Yemen is a model of war that is likely to be used far into the future — especially when you compare these wars to the “big wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the United States will not have a near-monopoly on this kind of warfare for long. Dozens of other countries are developing drones. The United States has been setting the rules for drone strikes over the past decade, and it’s probably only a matter of time before Russia, Iran and other countries carry out drone strikes using the same justification that the United States has.
What has been the diplomatic impact of the CIA’s new role as manhunter?
There are opportunity costs when the CIA puts so much emphasis on manhunting. The basic work of intelligence collection and espionage gets less attention. This was very clear during the Arab Spring, where the CIA and other intelligence agencies were behind the curve in understanding the revolutions. One reason for this is that when the CIA focuses on manhunting operations, the agency is necessarily going to work closely with foreign spy services in countries like Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. But those foreign spy services are going to be the last ones to tell the CIA about a revolt that’s about to happen inside their countries.
There is some resistance now to the continuation of the CIA’s targeted killing mandate. What, if any, is the likelihood of a change?
John Brennan, the new CIA director, has signalled that he would like the CIA to give up some of its paramilitary activities and return to its core functions of intelligence collection and analysis. But I think that any change that happens would be gradual. The CIA wouldn’t entirely get out of the killing business, in part because American presidents will want to preserve the option of CIA drone strikes in the future. It will be interesting to see what Brennan does. During President Obama’s first term, he was the top White House counterterrorism adviser and oversaw the escalation of the targeted killings, especially in Yemen. It is hard to imagine that during his watch the CIA would entirely hand off the drone programme to the Pentagon. And, there is the broader point that an entire generation of CIA officers has now been socialised in war. The basic skills of espionage and stealing secrets are very different from manhunting and killing. Any fundamental shift inside CIA could take years.
EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW