Another one bites the dust:
Al-Qaeda’s No. 2 leader, Abu Yahya al-Libi, the charismatic commander who helped steer the terrorist group after Osama bin Laden’s death last year, was killed by a CIA drone strike in Pakistan’s lawless frontier region, U.S. officials confirmed Tuesday.
We are rapidly running out of moles to whack. Yes, new people are continually promoted into leadership positions in AQ and other groups. But the core of people who made AQ a fearsome organization, capable of executing sophisticated operations globally is becoming increasingly scarce.
I have always supported drone attacks with the caveat that they were a short-term option. Both as a matter of cold calculation and of ethical and legal reasoning, the policy of targeted killing of terrorists has to be seen as an exception, not the norm of American counter-terrorism policy. There are several reasons.
As a matter of cold calculation, the marginal costs of such attacks outweigh the benefit for all but the most senior and/or aggressive and/or competent terrorist leaders. The marginal costs include alienating other countries (i.e Pakistan), collateral damage (i.e. dead civilians), and the problems of maintain access to enable such strike.s
As a matter of ethics and law, we need to worry about the precedent this sets. We need to worry about the erosion of American values and norms when a President takes for himself the right to murder even U.S. citizens pursuant to a secret process with no checks and balances.
The problem is we’re getting to the point where drone strikes are become normalized and institutionalized, where the machinery of target acquisition will begin to operate independent of any sound calculus of costs and benefits.
We can debate whether we’ve reached the appropriate inflection point. Some will argue that we passed it long ago. Others will say the program makes sense as long as folks like Zawahiri remain at large. But regardless, there is going to come a point where we are striking at people who (a) had nothing to do with 9/11; (b) were not active in AQ or any other group in 2001; and (c) have not demonstrated the ability to even threaten American interests abroad much less the U.S. homeland.
My judgment — and it is a preliminary one and subject to refutation — is that we should now be thinking seriously about tightening our targeting standards, not loosening them, with an eye at dramatically reducing our use of drones and targeted killings. We should be moving to a point where there is a finite and very restricted list of potential targets. And we should be willing, once that list is exhausted to declare, if not victory, at least a pause in the use of this approach.
What does the a post-drone, post-nation building CT strategy look like? I’d argue it looks a lot like what we were doing before 9/11, but with more resources and more attention. We certainly don’t want to go back to that risk averse, uncoordinated, and generally sloppy approach. But that said, domestic vigilance, aggressive foreign collection, coordination and cooperation with foreign governments, and robust criminal enforcement are more appropriate to deal with the threat as it now exists.
At the very least, we need to begin that conversation. Targeted killings have been impressively successful, but they are not sustainable (or wise) as a permanent solution.