Friday, The Times’ Greg Miller and Julian E. Barnes reported that the United States has escalated its war against Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies by “deploying Predator aircraft equipped with sophisticated new surveillance systems that were instrumental in crippling the insurgency in Iraq.”
It’s a story whose significance may extend well beyond the benighted hills and valleys of Pakistan’s violent Pashtun hinterlands and onto the hustings of our current presidential campaign. Coupled with Thursday’s report in the New York Times that President Bush has signed a secret order permitting Afghanistan-based U.S. special operations forces to cross into Pakistan without Islamabad’s permission, the odds of an “October surprise” that could influence the general election have risen appreciably.
U.S. officials also told The Times that the new surveillance systems allow the operators of the unmanned Predators to locate and identify individual human targets “even when they are inside buildings. ... The technology gives remote pilots a means beyond images from the Predator’s lens of confirming a target’s identity and precise location.”
The Times’ story confirms the most sensational revelation contained in Bob Woodward’s new book, “The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2007,” which was published this week. Woodward revealed the technology’s existence but, heeding requests from intelligence officials, declined to describe its operations except to say that it had allowed U.S. forces to locate and kill decisive numbers of senior Al Qaeda operatives and Iraqi insurgents. In what may be the book’s most controversial claim, Woodward argues that the secret technology and the so-called Anbar Awakening -- in which counterinsurgency techniques developed by the Marines won over tribal leaders in that crucial Sunni-dominated province -- had as much or more to do with stabilizing Iraq as the “surge” in U.S. troop numbers.
Beyond the purely military considerations, there are potentially significant political implications. First and most obvious is the question of the surge’s efficacy. The answer matters, particularly to John McCain, who has been one of the surge’s most resolute supporters. If it turns out that it was only one -- and, perhaps, the least consequential -- in a confluence of successful American initiatives, then McCain could go from steadfast to stubborn in voters’ minds.
The real wild card pops up if this new surveillance technology allows U.S. forces to find and kill Osama bin Laden. Bush wouldn’t be human if he didn’t desperately want to see the Al Qaeda warlord dealt with before inauguration day 2009. Moreover, as Woodward writes, the president frequently relishes the death of individual extremists and insurgents in a way that even our professional soldiers find striking. Then-American commander in Iraq Gen. George W. Casey Jr. “told a colleague in private that he had the impression that Bush reflected the ‘radical wing of the Republican Party that kept saying, “Kill the bastards! Kill the bastards! And you’ll succeed.” ’ Since the beginning, the president had viewed the war in conventional terms, repeatedly asking how many of the various enemies had been captured or killed.”
If U.S. special operations forces capture or kill Bin Laden, or if a CIA technician pushes a button and puts a Hellfire missile between his eyes, Bush will have made good on the vows he made seven years ago to bring the Al Qaeda leader to some sort of justice. In the eyes of many who supported him over the years, that would allow the president to leave office with at least part of his historical reputation intact.
There also are many Republican activists who must hope that an October surprise involving Bin Laden would give McCain -- unswerving supporter of the war and advocate of a muscular, hard-line foreign policy -- a boost by association. At the very least, anything that makes his connection to his party’s now dismally unpopular president less of a stigma helps the GOP candidate.
Still, it’s also possible that this particular October surprise might also help Barack Obama, at least at the margins, which is where this election increasingly looks to be decided. The Democratic nominee, after all, opposed going to war in Iraq, in part because it was a distraction from the conflict with the Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda, which had, after all, committed the 9/11 atrocities. If a military technology heretofore monopolized by operations in Iraq finally brings Bin Laden to answer for his crimes, Obama and his supporters can argue that the war in Iraq delayed the day of reckoning in Afghanistan.
That’s the thing about surprises, no matter what the month: The consequences frequently are as unlooked-for as the event.