Drones, Computer Viruses and Blowback

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Another day, another senior al-Qaeda leader killed by a drone strike. (I can’t be the first to point out that being al-Qaeda’s No. 2 is like being the drummer for Spinal Tap.)

Mitt Romney recently said that he gives Barack Obama an F grade “across the board.” It’s hard to imagine he really feels that way about Obama’s drone strikes. But it’d be nice to hear more from both Romney and Obama about America’s new approach to warfare.

Not long ago, the rage in Washington’s foreign policy circles was the doctrine of counterinsurgency. COIN, as it’s known, was about face-to-face contact with local populations, winning their hearts and minds to enlist their help in battles against insurgent enemies. This template was designed specifically with Iraq and Afghanistan in mind. But there was also a sense that it would dominate military action for years to come. Here’s an analysis predicting that the first Pentagon budget under Obama would “institutionalize support for counterinsurgency.” COIN caught on in part because it seemed a more enlightened and humane approach to warfare than, say, “shock and awe.” But it has come to disappoint many of its former cheerleaders, owing largely to its apparent failure in Afghanistan, along with the impracticality of its price tag in a budget-cutting era. Now it seems clear that the U.S.’s future approach to Afghanistan will mean the opposite of COIN: drone strikes from the sky, requiring few if any boots on the ground, and no contact with the local population — unless by contact you mean collateral damage that occasionally kills the neighbors of suspected terrorists. We’re less likely to attend meetings with locals than, well, blow them up. You can look at General David Petraeus’ career trajectory — from COIN visionary at the Pentagon to master drone hunter at the CIA — as a metaphor for this national shift. And while none of this is new, last week’s New York Times story on President Obama’s “kill list”  drove home to many Americans just how central this approach is to Obama’s national security strategy.

Using drones rather than soldiers to kill bad guys is appealing for many reasons, including cost, relative precision and reduction of risk to American troops. But it’s not a no-brainer. There’s plenty of evidence that drones antagonize local populations and, as Bob Wright frets, create more enemies over the long term than we kill in the short term. The failed 2010 Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad has said that about the U.S. drone campaign in Pakistan. And the Washington Post has described how drone strikes may be breeding sympathy for al-Qaeda in Yemen.

Now there’s another component to the new warfare that threatens blowback: cyberwar. Computer viruses reportedly created by U.S. intelligence agencies (in partnership with the Israelis) seem to have hobbled Iran’s nuclear weapons program, wrecking centrifuges and perhaps setting back the program by many months. Like drones, cyberweapons are relatively cheap and do their work without putting American troops in harm’s way. The blowback comes when those viruses get loose and inflict unintended damage or provide templates to terrorists or enemy nations that some experts think could lead to disaster. Wright goes so far as to argue that cyberweapons are like bioweapons, demanding international treaties to govern their use.

What do Romney and Obama think about that. Who knows? The new warfare is thus far nearly absent from the campaign dialogue. Its benefits may exceed its costs. But for now, that seems like an open question — and one it’d be worth debating.