The cost of killing by remote control

David Kilcullen is no soft-headed peacenik.

He’s a beefy, 41-year-old former Australian army officer who served in Iraq as a top advisor to U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus. He’s one of the counter-insurgency warrior/theorists who designed Petraeus’ successful “surge” of troops into the streets of Baghdad.

But a few days ago, when a congressman asked Kilcullen what the U.S. government should do in Pakistan, the Australian guerrilla fighter sounded like an antiwar protester.

“We need to call off the drones,” Kilcullen said.

In the arid valleys of western Pakistan, the United States is fighting a strange, long-distance war against Al Qaeda, the Taliban and their Pakistani allies. Unmanned “drone” airplanes take off from secret runways, seek out suspected terrorists and, with CIA employees at the remote controls, fire missiles to blow them up.

Officially, this is a covert program, and the CIA won’t acknowledge that it’s going on at all. Unofficially, intelligence officials say the Predator strikes are the most effective weapon they have against Al Qaeda.

President Obama has embraced an escalation in the raids that was approved by his predecessor, George W. Bush, last summer. The CIA has carried out at least 16 Predator strikes in Pakistan in the first four months of this year, compared with 36 strikes in all of 2008. The missile strikes have killed about 161 people since Obama’s inauguration, according to news reports from Pakistan; there’s no way of knowing how many of those were civilians.


Only one problem: Kilcullen says the missile strikes are backfiring.

Kilcullen’s objection to the U.S. strategy isn’t moral (he doesn’t mind killing “bad guys”) or legal (most legal scholars consider “targeted killing” acceptable under the law of war because Al Qaeda and the Taliban are at war with the United States). Kilcullen’s objection is practical. He says the strikes are creating more enemies than they eliminate.

“I realize that they do damage to the Al Qaeda leadership,” he told the House Armed Services Committee. But that, he said, was not enough to justify the program. “Since 2006, we’ve killed 14 senior Al Qaeda leaders using drone strikes; in the same time period, we’ve killed 700 Pakistani civilians in the same area. The drone strikes are highly unpopular. They are deeply aggravating to the population. And they’ve given rise to a feeling of anger that coalesces the population around the extremists and leads to spikes of extremism.

Another problem, Kilcullen says, is that “using robots from the air ... looks both cowardly and weak.”

In the Pashtun tribal culture of honor and revenge, face-to-face combat is seen as brave; shooting people with missiles from 20,000 feet is not. And besides, Kilcullen says, “There are other ways to do it.”

Kilcullen didn’t elaborate on those “other ways,” but intelligence experts say they could include deploying covert teams of hit men on the ground (risky) and training Pakistani special operations units to do the job (time-consuming).

There’s no sign yet that the Obama administration is taking his advice. The CIA, like any organization, is glad to take credit for a well-run operation that’s fulfilling its mission: eliminating Al Qaeda leaders. Some even claim that the missile strikes have pushed Al Qaeda to the brink of extinction.

“Al Qaeda is on the ropes,” the Bush administration’s last terrorism czar, Juan Carlos Zarate, told me recently. “We are at the point where we can imagine an end to Al Qaeda as we know it.”

There’s an echo here of the debate over another CIA program, the “enhanced interrogation” of terrorist detainees. The agency declared the interrogations a success because they produced useful information. But that narrow accounting ignored the damage to other U.S. interests, such as diplomacy and the rule of law.

One legal scholar, Kenneth Anderson of American University, says there’s another connection between the two issues: The controversy over how to detain, interrogate and try suspected terrorists has made it simpler just to shoot them. “The most powerful institutional incentive today is to kill rather than capture them,” he wrote recently. From a legal perspective, he suggested, warfare is easier than “lawfare.”

The problem in western Pakistan is that two U.S. interests are in conflict. We want to kill the leaders of Al Qaeda, but we also want to strengthen the government of Pakistan, which is under serious pressure from Islamist insurgents. At the moment, as Kilcullen points out, we are doing the first at the expense of the second.

The drone strikes play into the hands of insurgents, who cite them to stir up anti-Western and anti-government sentiment. And, according to some reports, the missile strikes have driven Al Qaeda and Taliban forces deeper into Pakistan.

So what happens next? The Obama administration is unlikely to abandon one of the few strategies that has produced results against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Instead, it has requested a new $400-million fund to train and equip counterinsurgency forces in Pakistan’s police and Frontier Corps, which are more enthusiastic about this fight than the regular army.

Counterinsurgency is neither sanitary nor bloodless. It may end up a measure of success if we can stop killing people with air-to-ground missiles and go back to killing them the old-fashioned way.