Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Drone Toll

A Predator drone firing a Hellfire missile. Such attacks killed over 500 suspected militants last year, but there is concern that such attacks are eliminating few senior terrorists. Supporters of the program argue that "eliminating them early" isn't so bad, either (General Atomics photo via Wikipedia).

One of the hallmarks of President Obama's strategy in the War on Terror (yes, he know he prefers to use another name) has been the increased use of drone attacks against Taliban and Al Qaida terrorists. Last year, for example, the U.S. unleashed scores of Predator and Reaper strikes against suspected militants in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many of those missions were the work of the CIA (which has developed impressive drone capabilities in recent years); others were conducted by the U.S. Air Force, which remains responsible for the bulk of our UAV operations in Southwest Asia.

But who is being targeted by these attacks? According to the Washington Post, most of the terrorists being killed by drone strikes are low-level operatives. Of the 581 Taliban and Al Qaida fighters eliminated by UAV attacks last year, only two were high-ranking enough to appear on a U.S. "most-wanted" list:

Despite a major escalation in the number of unmanned Predator strikes being carried out under the Obama administration, data from government and independent sources indicate that the number of high-ranking militants being killed as a result has either slipped or barely increased.

Even more-generous counts - which indicate that the CIA killed as many as 13 "high-value targets" - suggest that the drone program is hitting senior operatives only a fraction of the time.

After a year in which the CIA carried out a record 118 drone strikes, costing more than $1 million apiece, the results have raised questions about the purpose and parameters of the drone campaign.


The National Counterterrorism Center, which tracks terrorist leaders who are captured or killed, counts two suspects on U.S. most-wanted lists who died in drone strikes last year. They include Sheik Saeed al-Masri, al-Qaeda's No. 3, and Ahmed Mohamed Hamed Ali, who was indicted in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa before serving as al-Qaeda's chief of paramilitary operations in Afghanistan.

According to the NCTC, two senior operatives also were killed in drone strikes in each of the preceding years.

Frequent readers of this blog know that we could hardly be described as supporters of Mr. Obama and his agenda. But as far as the drone campaign is concerned, we believe the President and his national security team are on the right path, and the Post article is something of a hit piece, for several reasons:

-- First, as the paper freely admits, initial success in the drone wars has forced our enemies to change their tactics. High-ranking terrorists, who once roamed Afghanistan (and Pakistan's tribal regions) with near-impunity must now plan their movements more carefully. That, in turn, limits their ability to coordinate and plan. Indeed, some of the lower-ranking terrorists obliterated by Hellfire missiles from our UAVs were couriers, conveying information that, in years past, would have been carried by senior terrorist leaders.

-- Keeping Taliban and Al Qaida big-wigs hunkered down is the next-best thing to killing them (see item #1, above)

-- Better intelligence has allowed us to identify "patterns of activity" associated with lower-ranking terrorists, allowing us to target them more effectively (note: this group also includes "operational" suspects, who pose a direct threat to Allied troops in the region). We can only speculate as to the number of suicide bombings--and other attacks--that were preempted by identifying and eliminating terrorists as they left safe houses and suspected training sites.

-- Killing junior members of "the firm" causes advancement/promotion problems later on. For all the jihadis disptached on "one-way" missions, there are countless others who want to move up in the organization. Removing them means Al Qaida and the Taliban have fewer experienced operatives to train the next generation, or move to more senior posts in their organizations. True, the terrorists can still find plenty of recruits, but it takes time to teach them skills that are genuinely useful to the network, such as bomb-making. Taking them out early in their careers means the bad guys must look for more bodies, and get them in the training pipeline. Indeed, the real impact of killing 400+ low-ranking terrorists won't really be felt for several years, when some of them would be expected to fill more senior posts.

-- Removing terrorists on the battlefield eliminates the need to incarcerate them at "Club Gitmo," along with the legal wrangling over how they should be tried and punished. Let's see...the cost of life-long incarceration and bills for litigation and security that could run into the millions (if they're tried in federal court), versus $1 million for the Predator, another mil for the crew and $60,000 for the Hellfire. Option "B" is certainly more cost-effective.

One former CIA officerl, quoted in the Post article, summed it up well: "Pawns matter," the official said. Particularly when some of those pawns are expected to mature into knights and bishops on the terrorist chessboard.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

It appears that there have been no drone attacks since that fellow in Lahore was arrested.

I have no idea what "senior administration officials" hope to accomplish by saying publicly that he works for the CIA.