September 21, 2011
Drones can't change war
By William Cohen
Among the many issues that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta must ponder in the coming months will likely be whether to recommend shifting U.S. strategy in Afghanistan from counterinsurgency to counterterrorism.
Some critics argue that our current policy of deploying large numbers of ground troops puts more of our men and women at risk for questionable gain and even encourages more Afghans to join the Taliban, fighting against what they claim is an invasion force. Yet the recent gains in clearing out Taliban strongholds and helping to build schools, medical facilities and other civic institutions argue, instead, for staying the course for several more years.
But other factors are sure to intrude to force a resolution of this strategic dispute.
A growing segment of the American people wants to scale back the Afghanistan war effort, which has drained our Treasury of more than $1 trillion, when added to the costs of Iraq. Moreover, the allies who have joined us are also facing enormous pressure to reduce their defense expenditures in manpower and materiel.
The United States, despite pledges of support from its friends, may soon find that it must bear an even greater burden of the battle under way. Sheer necessity, rather than desire, may become the mother of strategic recalculation.
Actually, something of a shift is evident with our increased reliance on armed drones to target those identified as enemy combatants. The increased use of drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere, however, raises significant issues.
- Who determines when a drone strike is legitimate, and who decides to "pull the trigger" for a given strike?
- How reliable is the intelligence that the U.S. gathers before a strike is ordered?
- How reliable and secure are the thousands of miles of networks and data links involved in the drones' command and control with the decision makers and policymakers across the globe?
- How accurate are the calculations about collateral damage — casualties among innocent people — expected for each strike?
- Must consent, whether explicit or tacit, be given by leaders of the countries in which the strikes are executed?
- Does the use of drones, along with reduced military presence on the ground, undermine the confidence of the locals that we are willing to assume shared risks?
- What role does Congress play in overseeing war by remote control?
These are not new questions, or ones ignored, by our policymakers and lawmakers since I directed the creation of the armed Predator more than a decade ago.
But there is a broader, philosophical issue that must be addressed: Will waging high-tech warfare risk reducing the destruction of our enemies to an antiseptic video game in the minds of future policymakers?
This is not to suggest that we should not rely on the best technology to protect the lives of U.S. warriors. Or fail to use munitions that, by virtue of their precision, are likely to reduce the killing of innocent civilians.
But we need to be mindful that the ease of pressing a button in a command center thousands of miles from the battlefield to send a missile to its intended target may lead some to think that war itself is a cost-free exercise.
It is anything but cost free or bloodless.
Al Qaeda and its affiliates are likely to seek other hosts to help spread the cancer of terrorism, and there is little doubt that the U.S. will need to act to destroy their dangerous cells. While we were able to wage successful air campaigns in Kosovo and, more recently, in Libya, the "long twilight struggle" against terrorism is not, and will not be, fought solely with air assets or from remote command centers.
The decision to wage war is the gravest that any nation can make. It should always remain a difficult one — and one that involves the careful weighing of the risks of taking, or failing to take, action.
Technology should not prove so dazzling as to blind us to the reality that war will always prove to be the doorway into a hell that is far easier to enter than to exit.
William S. Cohen has served as defense secretary and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He is now chairman and chief executive officer of The Cohen Group, an international business advisory firm.