Former CIA Drone Chief Questions Policy

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A former head of the CIA’s counter-terrorism center, Robert Grenier, was forthright: “We have helped to bring about the situation that we most fear.”

Grenier, in an interview with FRONTLINE earlier this year, was talking about the consequences of a secret war by the CIA and its partners being fought in tribal areas on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. In charge himself of the CIA’s counterterrorist drone program in 2005 and 2006, he warns: “By launching those attacks, are we creating more militants than in fact we are killing?”

For the last few months, I’ve been reporting for FRONTLINE on the secret dimensions of this war in the borderlands, what analysts have labeled the “heartland” for Islamic jihadis and terrorist plotters. President Obama called it “the most dangerous place in the world” for Americans.

And, despite the killing of Osama bin Laden last Sunday — the greatest victory so far in a covert war — it’s still dangerous. So, beyond the operation to kill bin Laden, how successful are the strategy and tactics of this wider war to defeat these militant groups?

As we describe in a special report for FRONTLINE that will air tonight, the war has many fronts: from the Pakistan Army’s own offensive into its tribal areas, which has cost the lives of more than 3,000 soldiers and officers, to the CIA’s covert campaign. Tonight’s show will offer new insights into the CIA’s campaign, including its use of militia forces to strike against militants on the border. But the most well-publicized and, under President Obama, greatly expanded aspect of the CIA’s campaign is the drone bombing campaign.

Grenier’s concern is that the tactics may be contradictory and counterproductive.

Drones have been justified as a means to strike at a clear and present danger: militants plotting terrorist attacks against the West. “The calculus is really a very simple one,” he said. “It’s trying to kill people before they kill you. It’s as simple as that.”

But he warned the campaign has also stirred feelings against the West and against the Pakistan state — both of which can recruit more militants but also make it harder for Pakistan to align itself with the West.

“I think that drones are effective in doing what it is they are designed to do, and that is to launch very specific, surgical focused strikes against individual and small groups of militants. That then has unintended political and other effects,” Grenier said. So that’s a whole other question. By launching those attacks, are we creating militants than in fact we are killing? Well that’s a very open question.”

Driven up together into their tribal sanctuaries, the different facets of Islamic extremism are increasingly making common cause — rebels who seek independence in Indian-controlled Kashmir, for instance, are joining forces with Al Qaeda.

“It’s not just a matter of numbers of militants who are operating in that area, it also effects the motivations of those militants,” Grenier told FRONTLINE. “They now see themselves as part of a global Jihad. They are not just focused on helping oppressed Muslims in Kashmir or trying to fight the NATO and the Americans in Afghanistan, they see themselves as part of a global struggle, and therefore are a much broader threat than they were previously. So in a sense, yes, we have helped to bring about the situation that we most fear.”

While the drone war in Pakistan may continue, Sunday’s killing of Osama bin Laden in a compound close to a military academy wasn’t just a stunning blow against Al Qaeda. It also threw into sharp focus the enduring question of what relationship Pakistan’s state agencies and its intelligence service, the ISI, in particular has with the militants.
Tonight’s show will include not just Grenier’s questions about the drone campaign, but a deeper examination of whether Pakistan is really playing a double game.

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