30 May 2012
The theory and practice of warfare has evolved with amazing speed since al-Qaeda’s attack on mainland America in September, 2001. In less than 11 years it is already possible to discern three separate phases.
First, we had the era of ground invasion followed by military occupation. This concept, which feels terribly 20th-century today, appeared at first to work well, with the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan followed by the easy destruction of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
But by 2005, it was obvious that the strategy was failing. The resurgence of the Taliban, and the success of the Iraqi insurgencies, led to an urgent reassessment. In desperation, the United States turned to the more sophisticated methodology once favoured by the British and before them the Romans – the elaboration of a system of alliances, otherwise known as “divide and rule”.
This was the second phase, the “surge” of 2007, which made the reputation of General David Petraeus and rescued the second Bush presidency from disaster. Of greater significance than the temporary increase in troop numbers on the ground was the decision by the Western Iraqi tribes, encouraged by the payment of enormous bribes, to detach themselves, at least temporarily, from al-Qaeda.
The same tactics did not work, however, when duplicated two years later in Afghanistan – and so US policy has unobtrusively moved into a third phase: a new and as yet only partially understood doctrine of secret, unaccountable and illegal warfare.
The guiding force has once again been General Petraeus, who is already being tipped as favourite to win the Republican nomination in the 2016 presidential elections. Appointed director of the CIA last summer, he is converting the intelligence agency into a paramilitary organisation. Conventional military forces are scarcely relevant: it is Petraeus who now masterminds what George Bush used to call the “war on terror” from the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
President Obama has reportedly allowed his CIA chief to deepen the connection between Special Forces and secret intelligence, a potentially unconstitutional move because it can mean that military operations are no longer answerable to Congress. More important still, the CIA also seems to mastermind and direct the drone strikes which have suddenly become the central element of US (and therefore British) military strategy.
Even 10 years ago, drones – remotely operated killing machines – were unthinkable because they seemed to spring direct from the imagination of a deranged science-fiction movie director. But today they dominate. Already, more US armed forces personnel are being trained as drone operators (computer geeks who sit in front of a computer screen somewhere in the mid-west of America doling out real-life death and destruction) than air force pilots.
It is easy to understand why. First of all, they can be deadly accurate. Tribal Afghans have been amazed not just that the car a Taliban leader was travelling in was precisely targeted – but that the missile went in through the door on the side he was sitting. The US claims that drones have proved very effective at targeting and killing Taliban or al-Qaeda leaders, but with the very minimum of civilian casualties.
Second, US soldiers and airmen are not placed in harm’s way. This is very important in a democracy. In America, the killing of a dozen military personnel is a political event. The death of a dozen Afghan or Pakistani villagers in a remote part of what used to be called the north‑west frontier does not register, unless a US military spokesmen labels them “militants”, in which case it becomes a victory.
There is no surprise, then – as the New York Times revealed in an important article on Tuesday – that Mr Obama “has placed himself at the helm of a top secret 'nominations’ process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical”.
The least enviable task of an old-fashioned British home secretary was to sign the death warrant for convicted murderers. According to the New York Times, the President has taken these exquisite agonies one stage further: “When a rare opportunity for a drone strike at a top terrorist arises, but his family is with him, it is the President who has reserved to himself the final moral calculation.”
So, in the US, drone strikes are a good thing. In Pakistan, from where I write this, it is impossible to overestimate the anger and distress they cause. Almost all Pakistanis feel that they are personally under attack, and that America tramples on their precarious national sovereignty. There are good reasons for this. When, last year in Lahore, an out-of-control CIA operative shot dead two reportedly unarmed Pakistanis, and his follow-up car ran over and killed a third, the American was spirited out of the country.
Meanwhile, America refuses to apologise for killing 24 Pakistani servicemen in a botched ISAF operation. This is election year and Mr Obama, having apologised already over Koran-burning, may be nervous about a second apology, and has therefore confined himself to an expression of “regret”.
I am told by a number of credible sources that this refusal to behave decently – allied to dismay at the use of drones as the weapon of default in tribal areas – is the reason for the unusual decision of the US ambassador in Islamabad, Cameron Munter, to step down after less than two years in his post. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – increasingly irrelevant and marginalised in an administration dominated by the partnership between Leon Panetta, the Secretary of Defence, and Petraeus – has protested but been ignored.
We need a serious public debate on drones. They are still in their infancy, but have already changed the nature of warfare. The new technology points the way, within just a few decades, to a battlefield where soldiers never die or even risk their lives, and only alleged enemies of the state, their family members, and civilians die in combat – a world straight out of the mouse’s tale in Alice in Wonderland: “ 'I’ll be judge, I’ll be jury’, said cunning old Fury. 'I’ll try the whole cause and condemn you to death.’ ” Justice as dealt out by drones cannot be reconciled with the rule of law which we say we wish to defend.
Supporters of drones – and they make up practically the entire
respectable political establishment in Britain and the US – argue that
they are indispensable in the fight against al-Qaeda. But plenty of very
experienced voices have expressed profound qualms. The former army
officer David Kilcullen, one of the architects of the 2007 Iraqi surge,
has warned that drone attacks create more extremists than they
eliminate. Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, Britain’s former special
representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, is equally adamant that
drone attacks are horribly counter-productive because of the hatred they
have started to generate: according to a recent poll, more than two
thirds of Pakistanis regard the United States as an enemy. Britain used
to be popular and respected in this part of the world for our wisdom and
decency. Now, thanks to our refusal to challenge American military
doctrine, we are hated, too.