Targeted Killing and Drone Debate at Washington University Law School Today

(Update:  Sorry about leaving off a title!  perils of posting from an Ipod!)

Today at noon, the Whitney R. Harris World Law Institute at Washington University Law School is holding a debate on targeted killing using drone aircraft.  It features Notre Dame’s Mary Ellen O’Connell and yours truly, and moderated by Minnesota Public Radio’s Matt Sepic.  Mary Ellen and I each hold strong views on this topic, of course, and I am greatly looking forward to the discussion.   The event will be webcast, live, I believe, and then available archived at the website if anyone is interested.  My thanks to the folks at the Harris Institute, and Leila Sadat particularly, who invited us, and congratulations to the Institute on its 10th anniversary.  The Harris Institute could not have picked a more timely discussion for its anniversary debate, as a quick glance at the newspapers reveals.  The link to the Harris Institute event notice is here.

I’ve just finished the new Woodward book, Obama’s Wars, and it is intensely interesting on the topic of drones and targeted killing.  If anyone thinks that the President, the Vice-President, and the senior national security team are not convinced that it is effective and the most discriminating form of use of force available, they should read this book carefully.  Ramping it up is fundamental to the Obama administration’s war strategy, as I‘ve repeatedly said for the last couple of years, in part because it is embedded in counterinsurgency to take out the safe havens, and because it is the the thin tip of the spear in counterterrorism.

That, according to the first rate reporting from Adam Entous, Julian Barnes, Siobhan Gorman, and others at the Wall Street Journal’s first rate national security reporting team, is what is driving the ramping up now: look back at Woodward’s book on the strategy discussions from a year ago, and what the Journal reporters are noting on the front pages, and both sides of the ramp-up become clear.  Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan requires taking out the safe havens; counterterrorism against the terrorist groups in Pakistan is a function of drones.  More drone strikes either way, quite apart from their strengths in costs, precision, discrimination, etc.

One of the important takeaways from the Woodward book, however, is that the counterterrorism strategy depends far more than I had realized upon the CIA’s network of human intelligence on the ground, and not merely on Pakistan intelligence sources.  The drone targets are a function of every other conceivable intelligence resource from humans on the ground to signal intelligence.  Another is the repeated theme that Al Qaeda is much more involved with the “franchise” and “affiliated” terrorist groups seeking to expand ops beyond Mumbai and south Asia into Europe than I had believed – I had come round to seeing them as inspired by but not really coordinated through or with, but the Woodward book puts Al Qaeda as very much in the game.

Seen from the strategy decisions made a year ago, the moment has arrived in which the administration is brushing aside objections to leaning on Pakistan – blowback, nuclear arsenal, etc. – and deciding it is put up or shut up time.  This all has important implications for the overt, non-covert war – it is AfPak as a strategic matter, and quite possibly – for important strategic players – much, much more Pakistan than Afghanistan.  But the conflict is an AfPak one as far as important US strategic considerations run, and that means overt, direct Nato attacks across the border on safe havens, drone attacks, and no pretense that it is a deniable CIA operation.  We haven’t reached quite that point yet, but we might get there sooner rather than later.  The alternative is a ramping down of Afghanistan counterinsurgency, and a ramp up of CIA deniable operations in Pakistan, as counterterrorism.  This is the Biden preferred option, in the context of the various strategic reviews conducted by the administration, on the view that defeating the Afghan Taliban in any meaningful way is not possible, and so Al Qaeda and affiliated groups sheltered in Pakistan are the issue.  Which is to say, Pakistan is the real source of the poison.

That strategic debate can go many ways, but the one lesson out of it is that drones and targeted killing will get only more important, not less.

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