Petraeus and the ‘Drone Wars’

The CIA chief’s resignation enables a debate about the role of remote warfare and the future of counterterrorism.

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Armed Predator drone
The military is currently working on upgrading drones so that they can fly in "hostile environments" like the Middle East and Africa, says Lt. Gen. Larry James.

Heather Hurlburt is the executive director of the National Security Network in Washington, D.C. Heather previously served in the Clinton administration as speechwriter to the president, and as speechwriter and policy planning staff for Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher. Follow her on Twitter at @NatSecHeather.

Washington's politics, and what passes for the city's intellectual life, are not immune from the law of gravity. What rises fast to the stratosphere comes back to earth, whether Hillary Clinton or Kenneth Starr, Madeleine Albright or Donald Rumsfeld, the Contract with America, or Obamneycare. Blink, and the Next Big Thing is that book left in the rain at the end of your neighbor's garage sale. (Though then there are those who bounce through gravity, Clinton and Gingrich in particular—but that's another column, to be titled "Why F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong.")

The travails of David Petraeus are revealing about not just one, but two, Next Big Things. Stop snickering: I am referring, of course, to counterinsurgency theory and drone warfare.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

David Petraeus burst into public consciousness as the general who had, supposedly literally, written the book on counterinsurgency—warfare centered on winning the hearts and minds of civilians, known to the cognoscenti as COIN—and who was single-handedly dispatched to turn things around in first Iraq and then Afghanistan. Conservatives loved him because he talked confidently about prevailing. Internationalists and humanitarians liked the idea of focus on governance and meeting human needs as keys to ending fighting. The Beltway intellectual elite loved him because he seemed to be a thinker: West Point, Princeton, learning the lessons of the past. The media loved him because he gave good TV. And good quotes. And good background. And manhood tests for civilians disguised as five-mile runs.

(It should be noted here that much of the left, some libertarian conservatives, and some of his fellow officers didn't much care for him—because there seemed to be so few limits to his strategic or personal ambitions.)

But as Spencer Ackerman and others have noted, it turned out that one of Petraeus's supreme intellectual gifts was adaptability; when his counterinsurgency tactics that had helped bring together an Iraqi coalition to tamp down violence and allow a U.S. exit from Iraq proved ill-adapted to Afghan conditions, and unsustainable at home, Petraeus was able to leave them behind. Counterinsurgency theory has been the Last Big Thing for several years now, but Petraeus, both in his time in Afghanistan and at the CIA became one of the major implementers if not architects of its successor—coping with the threat of terrorism not by winning hearts and minds, but by decapitating extremist groups so quickly that they were ill-equipped to mount and carry out large-scale attacks across borders and great distances. The drone wars.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

(And yes, there was a hit Pakistani pop song with the refrain "My love is as fatal as a drone attack." But never mind.)

For six months now, we have seen the first stirrings of a drone revolt—like the quiet growth of the COIN critique, the pushback on GWOT ("global war on terror"), and every other tactic masquerading as a defining strategy for counterterrorism after 9/11. Like those counter-revolutions, the drone revolt has two strands—a moral and humanitarian one, and a pragmatic and effectiveness-based one.

Washington was still absorbing Petraeus's resignation when not one, but two former senior CIA officials commented that the agency in its next incarnation should "kill less and spy more."

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the U.S. Withdraw from Afghanistan Sooner?]

The core of the effectiveness critique of drones, in particular the "signature strikes" against low- and mid-level operatives, or individuals who share characteristics with such operatives, that the CIA has rolled out in recent years, is disarmingly similar to the critique Petraeus made of pre-COIN operations in Iraq and Afghanistan—that you cannot deny terrorists the ability to operate in a community if that community does not have a sense of security, and that terrorists recruit replacements from disassociated violence faster than they or their leadership can be killed off. 

This confluence suggests that the core challenge of blocking terrorism is not a military one—a notion everyone from the NSC's John Brennan to Mitt Romney gives lip service to, but that our policies have strained to reflect, as time and again the available military tools take over. Drones and other forms of remote-control warfare aren't going away. The technological developments that empowered them won't be undone. The very real organizations that do seek to threaten Americans and U.S. interests aren't going to fold up on their own. But we do need, urgently, some theory around which we create legal, ethical, and practical guidelines for remote-control warfare, based on what we know about human nature, and what we have learned about human response to our efforts to date.

The end of Petraeus's government tenure points up this juncture. It opens an opportunity for those in and out of government to ask not just what the role of remote warfare should be (though that is a big enough question) but what the whole of post-post-9/11 counterterrorism needs to look like. Petraeus himself is going to have far too much time on his hands to contemplate human frailty in the weeks ahead. It would be a shame if his decades of experience and service were lost to the nation—and it would be a shame if the nation lost this opportunity to ponder, not so much whether his personal pain has deeper meaning, but what meaning we need to draw form the decade that made him, in good times and bad, a household name.

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