“Al Qaeda seeks to bleed us financially by drawing us into long, costly wars that also inflame anti-American sentiment,” John Brennan, President Obama’s counter-terrorism advisor, said in a speech Wednesday unveiling the new strategy. “Going forward, we will be mindful that if our nation is threatened, our best offense won’t always be deploying large armies abroad but delivering targeted, surgical pressure to the groups that threaten us.”
The more acute threats to the U.S. these days come from Al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and perhaps Somalia, U.S. officials have said, and no one is contemplating sending large numbers of American troops to those countries.
Instead, the U.S. will pursue a war in the shadows, one relying heavily on missile strikes from unmanned aerial drones, raids by elite special operations troops, and quiet training of local forces to pursue terrorists.
In the peculiar dance that marks the administration’s discussions of this issue, Brennan did not explicitly mention the vast expansion of drone strikes the U.S. has undertaken in Pakistan since January 2009— 213 of them, according to the New America Foundation, which counts them through media reports. That is because the program technically is secret, even though it is widely discussed and openly acknowledged by U.S. and Pakistani officials in private.
Later, when asked whether a policy of targeted killing was appropriate for the United States, Brennan responded that the U.S. is “exceptionally precise and surgical in terms of addressing the terrorist threat. And by that I mean, if there are terrorists who are within an area where there are women and children or others, you know, we do not take such action that might put those innocent men, women and children in danger.”
He added that in the last year, “there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we’ve been able to develop.”
Brennan’s willingness to boast about the precision of the drone strikes without actually acknowledging them underscores one of the implications of the Obama counter-terrorism strategy: It will be conducted largely in secret, without public accountability. When the military makes a mistake in a drone strike, as it has done in Afghanistan, there is an investigation and some transparency.
But when it comes to targeted killing by the CIA or clandestine special operations units, government officials are able to avoid public scrutiny, citing the need for secrecy. They are willing to make claims about limited civilian casualties, but are not willing to document those claims by, for example, releasing the video taken of each strike.
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