By Noah Shachtman
July 28, 2011
Danger Room blog at Wired.com
ASPEN, Colorado — Ground the U.S. drone war in Pakistan. Rethink the idea of spending billions of dollars to pursue al-Qaida. Forget chasing terrorists in Yemen and Somalia, unless the local governments are willing to join in the hunt.
Those aren’t the words of some human rights activist, or some far-left Congressman. They’re from retired admiral and former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair — the man who was, until recently, nominally in charge of the entire American effort to find, track, and take out terrorists. Now, he’s calling for that campaign to be reconsidered, and possibly even junked.
Starting with the drone attacks. Yes, they take out some mid-level terrorists, Blair said. But they’re not strategically effective. If the drones stopped flying tomorrow, Blair told the audience at the Aspen Security Forum, “it’s not going to lower the threat to the U.S.” Al-Qaida and its allies have proven “it can sustain its level of resistance to an air-only campaign,” he said.
It’s one of many reasons why it’s a mistake to “have that campaign dominate our overall relations” with countries like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. “Because we’re alienating the countries concerned, because we’re treating countries just as places where we go attack groups that threaten us, we are threatening the prospects of long-term reform,” Blair said.
The “unilateral” strikes in Pakistan have to come to an end, he added, and be replaced with operations that had the full cooperation of the government in Islamabad. The effort needed “two hands on the trigger,” Blair said. And strikes should be launched only when “we agree with them on what drone attacks” should target.
The statements won’t exactly win Blair new friends in the Obama administration, which forced him out of the top intelligence job about a year after he was nominated. Not only has Obama drastically escalated the drone war — there’ve been 50 strikes in the first seven months of this year, almost as many as in all of 2009. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called the remotely-piloted attacks the “only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al-Qaida leadership.”
Plus, American relations with the Pakistani government are at their lowest point in years. And every time Washington tries to tip off Islamabad to a raid, it seems, the targets of the raid seem to conveniently skip town. No wonder the U.S. kept the mother of all unilateral strikes — the mission to kill Osama bin Laden — a secret from their erstwhile allies in Pakistan.
But Blair believes the cooperation — not only with Pakistan, but also with the government in Yemen and with whatever authorities can be found in Somalia — is the only way to bring some measure of peace to the world’s ungoverned spaces. “We have to change in those three countries,” he told the Forum (Full disclosure: I’m a moderator on one of the panels here.)
The reconsideration of our relationship with these countries is only the start of the overhaul Blair has in mind, however. He noted that the U.S. intelligence and homeland security communities are spending about $80 billion a year, outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yet al-Qaida and its affiliates only have about 4,000 members worldwide. That’s $20 million per terrorist per year, Blair pointed out.
“You think — woah, $20 million. Is that proportionate?” he asked. “So I think we need to relook at the strategy to get the money in the right places.”
Blair mentioned that 17 Americans have been killed on U.S. soil by terrorists since 9/11 — 14 of them in the Ft. Hood massacre. Meanwhile, auto accidents, murders and rapes combine have killed an estimated 1.5 million people in the past decade. “What is it that justifies this amount of money on this narrow problem?” he asked.
Blair purposely let his own question go unanswered.
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