President Obama zapped another bad guy the other day, incinerating Yemen-based al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki in the latest successful drone attack.
I give Obama credit for his persistent effort against al Qaeda. It’s one of the important things he said he was going to do – focus on fighting terrorism – and has carried through with. Obama has stepped up the use of drone attacks and killed scores of al Qaeda operatives and leaders, inflicting heavy damage on the organization at minimal cost to the United States in lives.
But it’s worth asking if some of the measures he is taking, while having short term success, are harming the effort in the long run.
We need not just to kill these people. We need to know what they know. The problem is that, under Obama, that’s not easy to do anymore.
In a first-rate piece in the Wall Street Journal Wednesday titled “What Could We Have Learned From Alwaki?”, Bush Attorney General Michael Mukasey notes that Obama has eviscerated our ability to extract information from our enemies by eliminating the harsh techniques used under Bush. Information that saved many lives.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the admitted mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, is probably the most famous but certainly not the only captured terrorist to have broken following experience with these harsh techniques. Indeed the mere availability of that program caused at least one captured al Qaeda operative to cooperate once he learned he was in CIA custody, even though he didn’t know precisely what the harsh techniques entailed.
President Obama abolished that program within 48 hours of taking office and replaced it with no classified program. Instead he announced to the world, and to our enemies, that henceforth all interrogations carried out by anyone acting under the authority of the United States would be limited to the techniques set forth in the Army Field Manual, a handbook meant to be suitable to the most raw recruit acting in the field without supervision. The Army Field Manual has been available on the Internet for years and is regularly used by terrorist groups for training in resistance to interrogation.
This could be prompting Obama to kill terrorists them rather than capture them. And no matter the danger, al Qaeda leaders who have been offed will quickly be replaced. The lure of all those heavenly virgins – al-Alwaki was arrested twice in the United States during the 1990s for soliciting prostitutes – is just too strong.
Further, the emphasis on trying terrorists we do catch in civilian court limits the nasty kinds of things interrogators might want to do to get them to sing.
Drawing down in Afghanistan without defeating the Taliban and removing too many troops from Iraq, which Obama is set on doing, will deprive the United States of its ability to collect the intelligence needed to find al Qaeda killers. Even the drone successes are likely to taper off as our presence in the area declines too precipitously.
Drones are consistent with the antiseptic way Obama likes to wage war – driving from the backseat and handing off to others as quickly as possible. But we are in a long term struggle with Islamists that won’t end soon. We’re not going to just be able to focus on setting up windmill farms, as Obama would like.
We need to do the dirty work of apprehending these characters and making them talk. Deprive them of sleep, so that we might sleep better at night.