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.