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Brennan Beyond Drones

Photo of John Brennan by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

When John Brennan, President Obama’s choice to become director of the CIA, goes before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Thursday, the senators’ focus is sure to be on his role in expanding the use of drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists overseas. And for good reason.

Drones were first used extensively after 9/11 against terrorist redoubts in Pakistan by the CIA, where Brennan was deputy director during the George W. Bush administration. But it wasn’t until Brennan moved to the White House, as President Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, that targeted killings of individuals became a vital tool in the American arsenal around the world.

Yet Brennan’s impact on the Obama administration’s counterterrorism policy has been far deeper than that. People involved in the early deliberations say Brennan drove the change in U.S. policy from the George W. Bush-era “global war on terror” to a war on al-Qaida. The practical effect in one sense was to narrow the U.S. focus.

In Iraq, for example, the United States was no longer concerned with all terrorist activities, just those instigated or promoted by forces whose leaders were believed to have the U.S. in its sights. At the same time, the U.S. focus was widened to encompass the world well beyond the Afghanistan-Pakistan arena where candidate Barak Obama had vowed to direct his attention.

The entire Obama team recognized that al-Qaida was metastasizing, spinning off affiliates and self-starting wannabes. But colleagues say Brennan’s years as CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia, his fluency in Arabic and relationships in the region caused him to draw their attention particularly to the dangers lurking in the ungoverned spaces in the Arabia Peninsula, the Horn of Africa and North Africa. And he argued that the United States had to cultivate the local governments, however shaky they might be, as allies in the counterterrorism effort.

Well before the Detroit-bound airline bombing attempt on Christmas Day 2010, Brennan had identified Yemen as a particular threat. He worked closely with prickly president Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose weakening hold had left areas of the country free for al-Qaida-linked terrorist groups to roam. Brennan bought Saleh’s cooperation on terrorism by marshalling U.S. money to help him address non-terror-related economic and security problems.

In return, the United States was given rein to use drone strikes to kill suspected adversaries. And when that failed to sustain Saleh, Brennan pivoted to work with Saudi Arabia to engineer Saleh’s departure. The jury’s still out on whether Yemen will make the transition to a more stable, functioning state.

Colleagues say Brennan also fingered North Africa, including Mali, as another soft underbelly al-Qaida would exploit. And again he marshaled U.S. government aid to build up the capacity of another shaky partner, the Malian government, with military aid — training, weapons and equipment — and non-military assistance, too. The U.S. stepped up aerial surveillance, but did not institute drone strikes. The outcome hasn’t met even the limited success it did in Yemen.

When Libya fell, battle-tested Islamist fighters flooded back to Mali to team up with jihadists there. And American trained forces, who should have been counted on to defend the state, instead mounted a coup against the government. Some hooked up with the insurgents, taking their equipment and training with them. It took French boots on the ground to drive the Islamists back into their old hideouts in the north.

Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, believes it’s unfair to declare Brennan’s “capacity-building” strategy a failure on the basis of Mali. “We always knew this area was unstable and ungoverned, and Mali was going to be a long-term endeavor,” Leiter said. “The problem came when you had the Arab spring, a coup in Mali and a flood of weapons from Libya into the region. No one could have predicted all those pieces coming into play at once.”

The world, of course, is an unpredictable place. And if the senators ever move beyond the drone issue at today’s hearing, they might want to ask Brennan about what Mali teaches about the wider strategy for dealing with these ever-shifting threats, and the role the CIA should play.

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