Today a grim-faced President Obama announced that he was taking “full responsibility” for the inadvertent death of two hostages held by al-Qaeda and killed in the frontier region of Pakistan by an American drone strike. He was right to do so, but it’s not an especially brave thing to do on the president’s part because few but the most perfervid partisans will blame him for this accident of the type that happens so often in the “fog of war.”
The only people who might be remotely surprised by this mistake would be those technologists and futurists who once argued that advances in computing power would make possible “perfect information awareness,” thereby turning war into a sterile targeting exercise. The U.S. military in the 1990s to some extent bought into this orthodoxy, which became known as “network-centric operations.” Although the limitations of information technology were brutally exposed in Afghanistan and Iraq, where no number of precision airstrikes could defeat determined insurgencies, there has remained a political vogue for “precise,” “surgical” airstrikes—now done by drones rather than by manned aircraft. This has, in fact, become the preferred Obama way of warfare.
There is no question that drone strikes are a useful tool of counter-terrorism policy, but the mistaken killing of the two hostages shows the limits of our intelligence. It would be all too easy to kill the enemy if we knew precisely where he was, but we don’t—insurgents like to hide in plain sight and it takes a lot of work to distinguish them from the civilian population. To be sure, high-tech reconnaissance and surveillance can enable this process but human-intelligence is necessary too, both the kind acquired by spies and the kind acquired by interrogators.
As it happens, the Joint Special Operations Command under Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Adm. Bill McRaven became very, very good at doing battlefield interrogations without using torture. It was their success in getting detainees to talk that enabled JSOC operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. But that is now a lot harder to pull off because the U.S. is no longer holding detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have transitioned the detention process over to the Iraqis and Afghans, with predictably dismal results. Many hardened killers who have blood on their hands were set free.
Moreover, Obama is refusing to send any new detainees to Guantanamo and continuing George W. Bush’s policy of releasing detainees, roughly a third of whom return to their old tricks. Finally Obama, like all presidents, is averse to putting American troops on the ground in harm’s way. Thus the strong preference for U.S. counter-terrorism strikes is to kill rather than to capture terrorists. But dead men tell no tales. The fact that we are not capturing and interrogating more bad guys means, inevitably, that the quality of our intelligence is going down, thus raising the likelihood of mistakes such as the ones that killed hostages Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto. “Wanted: Dead or Alive” is fine for Westerns, but in the real world live terrorists are far more useful than dead ones.