Drones and COIN, Post-Petraeus

By Paul Mutter

In what is sure to be one of the most glaringly obvious headlines written about the General Petraeus-Paula Broadwell affair, the Washington Post writes: “Petraeus hoped affair would stay secret and he could keep his job as CIA director.”

Clearly, things did not go according to plan. Right after the election, Petraeus submitted his resignation to President Obama after being under investigation by the FBI for months; he had already reportedly broken off his relationship with Broadwell, his biographer.

ABC reports that the FBI did not in fact inform the White House because their findings were “the result of a criminal investigation that never reached the threshold of an intelligence probe” — but even as the FBI was mulling over what to do next, one of the agents on the case was contacting Florida socialite Jill Kelley to inform her of their findings so far.

The investigation showed just how broad the Bureau’s powers are with respect to communications monitoring. Rather than observing what The Daily Beast calls “the spirit of minimization to lead the FBI to keep any personal revelations within the bureau and not say anything to anybody” in other cases involving personal threats, it seems that the since-dismissed agent violated this policy and not only told Kelley, but Members of Congress as well, before the Tampa office handling the email-reading contacted the Director of the FBI to warn of possible national security implications.

As a result of the FBI’s case with Kelley, the US/NATO commander in Afghanistan, General John R. Allen, is also now “involved” in the scandal due to his lengthy email correspondence with Kelley that has raised concerns over potential breaches of national security.

Though the details of the affair have captured headlines and a large number of officials and foreign policy commentators are bemoaning the damage done to Petraeus’s military-policy reputation, some discussion is occurring over the ex-DCIA’s record as top general in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Langley’s chief drone advocate.

Issandr El Amrani at the Arabist offers a succinct observation of how Petraeus’s star rose in the Beltway hierarchy as the US sought a way out of Iraq: “[h]e delivered results of sorts for the US, which gave Washington political cover for an exit.” While this certainly represented a success for a despairing Bush White House, it was not a step towards carrying out an extended occupation, or even reinvigorating the potpourri of war aims increasingly advanced after 2003 to re-spin the war’s WMD casus belli. Iraq’s ongoing political troubles offer few hints as to how counterinsurgency, or COIN, may have staved off total collapse. At least, from the military’s perspective, the “Surge” staved off a complete collapse and ensured the US could withdraw in the near future, not unlike Nixon’s 1973 “peace with honor” adage in Vietnam. With Iran maintaining its influence in Baghdad (handed to them by the US invasion), disparate militias eyeing each other warily in Kurdistan, and Iraq’s anti-Iranian & anti-American terror cells looking to Syria to revitalize their regional struggle, America’s 21st century “peace with honor” may sound just as hollow for some Iraqi officials today as it sounded for South Vietnamese negotiators back then.

COIN itself never came to reoccupy the spot formerly reserved for “nation-building” in the years Robert McNamara’s whiz kids rode high. As Andrew Sullivan and Michael Hastings note, the general himself did not exactly follow his own press in practice when he transfered over to Afghanistan, emphasizing air strikes and special operations missions over his much-lauded counterinsurgency practices of going door-to-door to win the population over. As Spencer Ackerman, who has issued an apology for not being more aware of how the general’s Army office was influencing his past reporting, Petraeus has done much to expand the CIA’s own drone program, calling for a significant expansion of the program just weeks before his resignation.

COIN and its mythologizing aside, there are few reasons to expect that the general’s counterterrorism policies will suddenly fall out of favor with the White House, not least because Deputy NSA John O. Brennan has been one of the driving forces for institutionalizing drone warfare since his appointment in 2009. The influential former DCIA Michael Hayden, now coming off of his stint as an advisor to former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, is urging the agency to move away from its targeted killing trajectory and back towards threat assessment and anticipation. He remarked that looking to the future of the Agency, “[t]he biggest challenge may be the sheer volume of problems that require intelligence input.”

There is little chance though that Petraeus’s downfall will see the downgrading of the Agency’s robot presence. With both the US and Pakistan unwilling to launch ground major operations into the Afghanistan-Pakistan border regions due to the casualties their armed forces would incur, the drone wars are regarded as the most effective military option available. Neither Washington nor Islamabad — or on the other side of the Indian Ocean, Sana’a and Mogadishu — have either the capacity or will for anything more. Or for anything less, in fact, since that would mean ceding the field to the targets, who despite their losses, can draw strength from these strikes. The CTC man told the Washington Post last year while the Agency may be “killing these sons of bitches faster than they can grow them now,” he himself does not think he’s implementing a truly sustainable policy for this Administration, or for those that will follow.

But as the Post reported this past month, Deputy NSA Brennan seems to think otherwise, along with those reportedly elevated in the CIA under Petraeus’s directorship.

While the relationship between reporter and officer — whether sexualized or not — is likely to remain a topic of debate and “soul-searching” for commentators in the coming months, and COIN may fade away from Army manuals trying to plan out the next “time-limited, scope-limited military action, in concert with our international partners,” the new face of counterterrorism that is the General Atomics MQ series is likely to be the general/DCIA’s most lasting legacy. And this will be the one that holds the fewest headlines of all in the weeks to come, given it’s broad acceptance across both major parties and the “punditocracy.”

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