WASHINGTON - Some United States Central Intelligence Agency officers involved
in the agency's drone strikes program in Pakistan and elsewhere are privately
expressing their opposition to the program within the agency because it is
helping al-Qaeda and its allies recruit, according to a retired military
officer in contact with them.
"Some of the CIA operators are concerned that, because of its blowback effect,
it is doing more harm than good," said Jeffrey
Addicott, former legal adviser to US Special Forces and director of the Center
for Terrorism Law at St Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas, in an
interview with Inter Press Service (IPS).
Addicott said the CIA operatives that he knows have told him al-Qaeda and
Taliban leaders are effectively using the drone strikes to recruit more
CIA officers "are very upset" with the drone strike policy, Addicott said.
"They'll do what the boss says, but they view it as a harmful exercise. They
say we're largely killing rank and file Pakistani Taliban, and they are the
ones who are agitated by the campaign."
Because the drone strikes kill innocent civilians and bystanders along with
leaders from far away, they "infuriate the Muslim male", said Addicott, thus
making them more willing to join the movement. The men in Pakistan's tribal
region "view Americans as cowards and weasels", he said.
Addicott retired from the US Army as a lieutenant colonel in 2000 after serving
for six years as senior legal adviser to the Special Operations Forces. He is
still a consultant for the US military on issues of terrorism and law. Addicott
said the CIA officers expressing concern about the blowback effects of the
drone policy are "mid-grade and below".
They learned about the impact of drone strikes on recruiting by extremist
leaders in Pakistan from intelligence gathered by the CIA and the National
Security Agency, which intercepts electronic communications, according to
They have informed high-level CIA officials about their concerns that the
program is backfiring, Addicott told IPS. "The people at the top are not
believers," said Addicott, referring to the CIA. "They know that the objective
is not going to be achieved."
The complaints by CIA operatives about the drone strikes' blowback effect
reported by Addicott are identical to warnings by military and intelligence
officials reported in April 2009 by Jonathan Landay of McClatchy newspapers.
Landay quoted an intelligence official with deep involvement in both
Afghanistan and Pakistan as saying al-Qaeda and the Taliban had used the
strikes in propaganda to "portray Americans as cowards who are afraid to face
their enemies and risk death".
The official called the operations "a major catalyst" for the jihadi movement
A military official involved in counterterrorism operations told Landay the
drone strikes were a "recruiting windfall for the Pakistani Taliban".
The CIA operatives' opposition to the drone strikes program extends to
Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and Sudan, all of which now have confirmed deaths
from drone strikes, according to Addicott.
The official goal of the geographical expansion of drone strikes is to destroy
or disrupt al-Qaeda. But al-Qaeda is less a major organization than "a
mentality" in most Middle Eastern countries, Addicott said, and the CIA
officers fear that the strikes will only reinforce that way of thinking.
Addicott said President Barack Obama is driving the drone program, not the CIA.
"Obama's trying to show people that we're winning," he added.
The program was originally authorized by president George W Bush against a
relatively short list of high-level al-Qaeda officials, and with highly
restrictive conditions on approval of each strike. The strike could not be
approved unless the target was identified with high confidence, and a complete
assessment of "collateral damage" had to ensure against significant civilian
In early 2008, however, Bush approved the removal of previous restraints. As
recounted by David Sanger in his 2009 book The Inheritance, Bush
authorized strikes against targets merely based on visual evidence of a
"typical" al-Qaeda motorcade or a group entering a house that had been linked
to al-Qaeda or its Pakistani Taliban allies.
As a top national security aide to Bush acknowledged to Sanger, the shift was
"risky" because, "you can hit the wrong house or mistakenly misidentify the
It also meant that anyone who could be linked in some way to al-Qaeda, the
Taliban or "associated forces" could now be targeted for drone attacks.
The Obama administration has continued to justify the program as aimed at
high-value targets, suggesting that it can degrade al-Qaeda as an organization
by a "decapitation" strategy, according to Addicott. However administration
officials now privately admit that the objective of the program is to
"demoralize the rank and file", he said.
That won't work, according to Addicott. "These are tribal people. They don't
view life and death the way we expect them to," he said, noting that in effect,
the drone strikes program has become an "attrition" strategy for Pakistan.
Such a strategy in Pakistan's tribal region appears to be futile. Madrassas
(seminaries) in the region have churned out tens of thousands of young men with
militant views, and their activities are spread across hundreds of sites in the
region. A US military intelligence official told Bill Roggio of The Long War
Journal in 2009 that there were 157 training camps and "more than 400 support
locations" in the tribal northwest.
Within the administration, it appears that the logic behind the program is that
it has to be seen to be doing something about al-Qaeda. "The argument I get
from people associated with the program," said Micah Zenko, a fellow in
Conflict Prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations, "is the same as the
one [CIA director Leon] Panetta gave last year."
"Very frankly," Panetta declared on May 18, 2009, "it's the only game in town
in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al-Qaeda leadership."
Zenko, who has studied the bureaucratic in-fighting surrounding such limited
uses of military force, told IPS that drone strikes have appealed to the Obama
administration because they offer "clear results that are obtained quickly and
are easily measured".
All the other tools that might be used to try to reduce al-Qaeda influence in
Pakistan and elsewhere take a long time, require cooperation among multiple
actors and have no powerful political constituency behind them, Zenko observed.
Dissent from those who are involved in the program itself has little effect
when it is up against what is perceived as political pressure to show progress
against al-Qaeda - no matter how illusory.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.