Killing Isn't Cool

Why the Pentagon hates Obama's drone war.

General Stanley McChrystal is speaking out against the Obama administration's use of drone strikes, echoing previous warnings and clashing with the White House's carefully cultivated narrative:

To the Daily Telegraph:

It's very tempting for any country to have a clean, antiseptic approach, that you can use technology, but it's not something that I think is going to be an effective strategy, unless it is part of a wider commitment.

To Reuters:

They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who've never seen one or seen the effects of one.

To journalist Trudy Rubin:

[Drones are] a very limited approach that gives the illusion you are making progress because you are doing something.

And to television anchor Candy Crowley

It can lower the threshold for decision making to take action that at the receiving end, feels very different at the receiving end.

McChrystal offers a unique perspective on the debate surrounding drone strikes. Serving as the commander of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) from 2003 to 2008, he restructured the secretive unit to capture or kill hundreds of suspected militants and terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. During this time, he had the authority to deploy U.S. forces into Pakistan -- without prior approval from the White House -- in order to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. As commander of the international and U.S. forces in Afghanistan from June 2009 to July 2010, he significantly tightened the rules of engagement for airstrikes in populated areas, noting, "Air power contains the seeds of our own destruction." (Full disclosure: McChrystal served on the advisory committee of my recent report on U.S. drone strikes, although that does not mean he agreed with my findings or recommendations.)

Although his candor is rare in his field, many of McChrystal's concerns are increasingly shared by active-duty and retired military officials with whom I've spoken. The vast majority of these officers, who held a wide range of positions while in uniform, are deeply troubled by the Obama administration's ongoing drone wars for five reasons.

First, many believe that discrete military operations -- like drone strikes and special operations raids -- are much easier, more responsive, and less risky than previously available uses of force. However, they worry that civilian policymakers have lowered the threshold for the use of lethal force, often at the exclusion of other elements of power that are essential to achieving any strategic objective. The capabilities of Special Operations Command (SOCOM) have improved and expanded so dramatically since 9/11 that its commander, Admiral William McRaven, sincerely characterized the mission to kill Osama bin Laden as dull: "From a military perspective this was a standard raid. And not very sexy."

If once-exceptional missions are now routine -- there were 13 comparable raids in Afghanistan the night bin Laden was killed -- then the major concern is that they become the default option, with limited consideration for their long-term consequences. As General Peter Pace, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned: "I worry about speed making it too easy to employ force...too easy to take the easy answer -- let's go whack them with special operations -- as opposed to perhaps a more laborious answer for perhaps a better long-term solution."

Second, members of the special operations community constantly repeat the mantra of F3EAD, pronounced "feed," the acronym for "Find, Fix, Finish, Exploit, Analyze, Disseminate." Found in U.S. Army Field Manual 3-60 ("The Targeting Process"), F3EAD is a process to attempt to capture, kill, or influence (for example, sending a text message warning "we're watching you") specific high-value targets within a broader counterinsurgency campaign. While it may be necessary to kill these individuals, the preferred options are to place the targets under constant surveillance to better understand their networks, or to interrogate them to gather intelligence. One of the overriding imperatives of counterinsurgency missions is to constantly increase and refine situational awareness of the environment.

As Brigadier General Michael Nagata -- who colleagues say has perhaps as good an insight into recent clandestine operations as anyone in the U.S. military -- noted in 2011: "The fundamental value in capturing the enemy is so that you have a better grasp of the environment. The more you understand the environment, the more effective your choices will be." (Nagata was recently assigned to lead SOCOM, U.S. Central Command, where presumably he will be able to put his theories into practice.) By that thinking, the problem with stand-off airstrikes instead of riskier operations to capture suspected militants is that you cannot enhance your understanding of the villages or cities where strikes occur, much less adequately measure the effects. As one naval officer described the current strategy: "All we do in Pakistan is the find, fix, finish; we can do that forever." Nor do such strikes always finish the target: A senior official with extensive background in special operations told me that in 10 percent of the airstrikes he has watched -- whether from Hellfire missiles or 2,000 pound bombs -- the intended victim has simply walked or run away unharmed from a destroyed house or vehicle. "Squirters," they are called.

Third, most servicemembers exposed to direct combat can describe the instances -- or near-instances -- of collateral damage and civilian casualties caused by U.S. airstrikes, despite the procedural safeguards in place that attempt to prevent this. Among the many mistakes and near-misses related to me: The tribal leader whose Jeep was accidently destroyed by an Apache helicopter in western Baghdad; the tribal police in Paktika Province, Afghanistan, who were nearly targeted by a drone because they had gathered in a courtyard one evening; or the Afghan girl injured by the blast from a bomb that destroyed a neighboring compound. Having witnessed the inherent limits of airpower, many military officials -- who admittedly lack direct insight into the CIA's drone program -- often claim that the CIA doesn't "really know who they're killing."

Fourth, more than 2.6 million U.S. servicemembers have been deployed to the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, where 6,633 U.S. personnel and an estimated 140,000 Iraqi and Afghan civilians have lost their lives. After witnessing such carnage firsthand, many military officials found how the White House has handled the constant promotion of the bin Laden raid troubling and offensive -- especially after Obama vowed, "We don't spike the football." I have met very few people in uniform who think killing another person is in any way "tough" or "cool."

Finally, every military (and civilian) official says "you cannot capture or kill" your way out the problems caused by those who use violence to achieve political objectives. What McChrystal noted about Afghanistan -- "You can kill Taliban forever, because they are not a finite number" -- would apply to any of the groups currently targeted by the United States. Yet, the perception exists that killing is the only thing happening in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, in part because the military has so little faith in the capabilities of the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and/or the host nation.

During his confirmation hearing to become the director of central intelligence, John Brennan repeated his prior pledge regarding al Qaeda -- "We will destroy that organization" -- which, according to the latest State Department estimates, is growing to thousands of individuals among its various "affiliates." This current U.S. counterterrorism strategy of "mowing the grass" (as it's indelicately called) through indefinite drone strikes, without thinking through the likely second- and third-order effects, will never achieve its strategic objectives. This highlights the question military planning staffs will pose to civilian policymakers who ask about bombing a target or individual: "And then what?" In the case of a campaign of drone strikes, the answer these military planners see is more drone strikes.

Military officials consider themselves the guardians and stewards for how military force is perceived and employed. Through the iterative process in which kinetic military options are discussed and debated, they offer their best professional advice, and then follow the orders of their civilian leaders. At the same time, many military officials believe that the governmental and national conversation about what the United States is achieving with drones has been wholly inadequate. A Navy captain recently summarized the general consensus of his peers in other services: "Drones are an example of technology outpacing our morality and thinking." Thus, military officials increasingly believe that the Obama administration must think through its current practices and policies of targeted killings, and consider how they can be reformed, or risk others following in U.S. footsteps. 

Spc. Roland Hale/DVIDS


North Korea Is a Nuclear Power

And it’s time for the West to get used to it.

Any hopes that the first year of the young North Korean dictator's reign would signal a departure from his father Kim Jong Il's hardline policies have been dashed. The boyish looking (and, indeed, seriously young -- probably 29 years old) Kim Jong Un has so far proved himself to be a loyal son, following in his father's footsteps, while at the same time delivering results his father could only dream about.

On Feb. 12, North Korea successfully conducted its third nuclear test -- judging by initial reports, the device that exploded in a remote part of North Korea on Tuesday morning was both smaller and more powerful than those tested in 2006 and 2009. South Korea's defense ministry estimated the yield of the recent test at 6 to 7 kilotons. That's less than half the yield of the bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 but likely larger than North Korea's last nuclear test, which had an estimated yield of 2 to 6 kilotons -- and much bigger than the 2006 test, which was largely regarded as a fizzle.

It is probably not a workable nuclear warhead yet, but North Korea is clearly getting close. In December, Pyongyang finally succeeded in putting a satellite into orbit -- a feat it accomplished before its technologically superior archrival South Korea -- which demonstrated that North Korean engineers are on their way to acquiring full-scale intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability. There is still a lot of work to be done: engineers must develop a re-entry vehicle, perfect the missile guidance systems, and improve the general reliability of the devices. Nonetheless, the December launch plus this February test represents a very significant step in that direction.

Indeed, the North Korean nuclear program is advancing much faster than many have expected. North Korea might be a poor country with a grotesquely inefficient economic system, but it is one of only a handful of countries that possess nuclear weapons. Soon, it will likely create a working delivery system and have the ability, and possibly the will, to launch weapons directed at the United States.

These developments are not particularly surprising. Stalinist economies, of which North Korea is a proud example, perform far worse than their market counterparts. Yet they have a remarkable ability to concentrate all available resources on a small number of projects that the government deems vital, allowing them to punch well above their weight in areas designated as priorities. The Soviet Union, for example, developed its nuclear and ICBM programs in the late 1940s, at a time when it was hardly more prosperous than the North Korea of today. In short, centrally planned economies are hopeless when it comes to satisfying consumers' needs, but they make good bombs.

The unexpectedly fast progress of North Korea's engineers and scientists has once again demonstrated that if nothing is done, the world will see the dramatic and dangerous emergence of a nuclear-armed state -- and one with uncertain intentions. China, the United States, and Japan have already condemned the test; Obama, on the eve of his State of the Union address, called it a "highly provocative act." U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated the obvious: the test was a "clear and grave violation" of Security Council resolutions. Indeed, international sanctions have failed in the most spectacular way. North Korea has been under a strict sanctions regime since 2006, but this has not prevented it from successfully developing both nuclear weapons and proto-ICBMs. One cannot even conclude that the gains have been achieved at the cost of sacrifice for common North Koreans -- while North Korea remains poor, sanctions coincided with a period in which the country's living standards might even have increased. The nuclear test has also demonstrated that China, the one country seen as able to rein in North Korea, has even less control over it than previously thought. Over the last month, Beijing had taken an unusually tough stance towards Pyongyang's promise to conduct the third test, and yet the North went ahead anyway, ignoring Chinese pressure and thinly veiled threats.

It's time to accept the obvious. In spite of all efforts to halt or slow down the process, North Korea will become a successfully nuclearized state. Once it achieves that goal, it will remain so for the foreseeable future. In order to prevent Pyongyang from further perfecting its nuclear and missile abilities the West must begin an earnest dialogue with the country's leaders. The aim should be to reach an arms control agreement which implicitly accepts North Korea's claim to being a nuclear power, while also limiting the size of North Korea's nuclear arsenal, and setting out a clear and specific means of controlling this arsenal. In other words, the pipe dream of denuclearization should be discarded; arms control is the only attainable goal.

Such a dialogue should be entered into with no illusions: North Korea has a proven track record of cheating, and they will try hard to cheat again this time. Pyongyang will sign such an arms control agreement only if the outside world is prepared to pay them for the privilege in the form of aid and other assistance, as it's done in past negotiations. It is not a good compromise, but it's the best option remaining -- the result of decades of canny foreign policy maneuvering by North Korea's leaders.

Somewhere, Kim Jong Il is smiling.