The impressive capacity of drone aircraft armed with Hellfire missiles to destroy anyone unprotected by serious air defenses has led the US government (and the think-tank community) to overlook the first-order questions regarding their use, indeed regarding the use of any military force. To wit: Are we targeting those we really want to kill? Who are the people whose deaths would relieve us of our problems? The first is a classic question of intelligence. The second is the classic questions of strategy. But our national security Establishment has accustomed itself to substituting tactics for both intelligence and strategy.
How does the US government select the targets for drone strikes? The answer is no more satisfying than it is pretty. It amounts to sorting second and third-hand rumors that pass as intelligence for lack of anything better. The overarching reason is that the US governments eighty billion dollar per annum Intelligence Establishment has hardly any independent, secure sources about terrorists. Our CIA so-called clandestine service consists (97%) of persons who merely pretend to be employees of other US agencies and who basically pass along the opinions of Mid-East intelligence services and other self-interested parties. The CIA has zero independent quality control of such intelligence, because such quality control would disqualify most of it.
How double-edged CIA human intelligence is may be glimpsed by the insufficiently remembered massacre of seven CIA officers in Afghanistan on December 30 2009. They were blown up by an informant who had been passed to them by Jordanian Intelligence, on whom they had relied for a year and a half to target US drone strikes. It is a safe bet that the countless people killed by the US strikes that he targeted were not enemies of the United States, and that their deaths lengthened rather than shortened the list of Americas enemies.
Our militarys human intelligence is somewhat more reliable, since it usually depends on direct contact between US service members and local tribesmen. But again, such intelligence suffers from the obvious fact that it reflects the sources friendships, enmities, and agenda, but above all because it also suffers from lack of quality control.
The other main source of intelligence on terrorism, namely intercepts of telephone and internet communications, suffers from the equally obvious fact that all sentient persons know perfectly well that the US government is listening in. It takes an act of will for the US government to imagine that terrorists choose not to use secret means of communications, and choose to bare their identities, locations, and plans on electronic channels they know to be compromised. The US government seems to believe that they are just asking to be droned.
All of this is to say that we should not dismiss out of hand the cries of people from Afghanistan to Yemen who claim that US drone strikes have killed innocents, or accept uncritically the news reports that dozen after dozen of militants and al Qaeda hierarchs have been eliminated. We dont know.
Suppose however that every person killed by US drone strikes were a terrorist who would strike America if he could. Still, though those who shout there are a billion Osamas exaggerate, they point to a dreadful reality: having killed terrorists for more than a decade, we are beset by more terrorists than ever. This naturally raises the question of who the enemies may be whose deaths would rid us of our troubles or at least diminish them. That is a question of strategy rather than one of intelligence.
Drone strikes are a powerful tactic. But the proper strategy depends on identifying our problems causes: who and what encourages and enables, and who and what discourages and constrains the bombers and trigger-pullers? While some of the most important causes, e.g. Western societys corruption and alienation from its own principles cannot be remedied by force, others are amenable to precise targeting.
Todays Islamist terrorists live physically, usually financially, and above all psychologically, in Muslim countries. When their ties are sub-national, they are nevertheless to well-known groups such as Hizbullah or the PLO or to ancestral tribes. None of these regimes, groups, or tribes is what anyone might call permissive. Their rulers rule with bloody iron hands and claim to be unique sources of authority. They make no distinction between society and regime, between state and Mosque. This is a sword one of whose handles the US could grasp.
The US government could use drones effectively to face these rulers with the stark choice between seeing to it that no one, but no one, who lives in or under their orbit shall have any involvement with anti American terrorism and being killed by a US drone. No excuses, no exceptions. Indeed the prospect of sudden death could cause such potentates positively to encourage educational and religious practices leading to peace rather than terrorism. Or they could choose to die, personifying anti-Americanisms deadly futility.
On the other hand, the US government could continue to use drones as it has, against an uncertain mixture of insignificants and innocents. Who would argue that a decade from now Americans will be safer thereby?