It’s Not the Drones, It’s the Network
The Wall Street Journal has a wonderful story on the role of the CIA’s drones in harassing al-Qaeda in Pakistan, and it includes, at the bottom, this paragraph that explains why the efficacy of the drone strikes has reportedly increased:
At the same time, U.S. intelligence collection in Pakistan has vastly improved, officials say. Western intelligence services have had more success penetrating al Qaeda groups lately, according to Richard Barrett, the United Nations’ coordinator for monitoring al Qaeda and the Taliban. “There’s many more human sources being run into the groups,” Mr. Barrett, a former official with Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, told an audience at a Washington think tank last week.
Whether CIA or Pakistani intelligence sources are the ones responsible, that’s a very promising sign, since it indicates that there are internal fractures in the groups sheltering al-Qaeda that intelligence agencies are able to exploit.
The New York Times’ follow-up has a good description of how this new data point is influencing the Obama administration’s strategy review:
That idea has its critics, including General McChrystal and other officials who do not overlook the value of such operations — indeed, General McChrystal used to head the Joint Special Operations Command, which was responsible for many of those operations. But they say they depend on a significant troop presence on the ground to provide intelligence and restrict the space where Al Qaeda can operate. They argue that defeating Al Qaeda requires fighting the Taliban, too, and warn of the difficulties in managing the relationship with Pakistan, which has often bristled at American drone attacks on its territory.
But the question is why the U.S. is able to reap actionable intelligence against its main enemy, al-Qaeda, where there are no U.S. troops, or even really Pakistani troops, but it couldn’t do the same thing against its subsidiary enemy, the Taliban, if it capped U.S. and NATO troop levels at 68,000. Perhaps the circumstances really are different — the Taliban, as Pashtuns, have a much closer relationship to Afghanistan than the mostly Arab upper echelon of al-Qaeda does to Pashtun Pakistan — but if the argument really is that counterinsurgency is a prerequisite for intelligence gathering, the Pakistani case needs to be further explored, because it really does look like a counterexample.