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General Petraeus and the Drone War

Once a hold-out strategist who thought drones would fuel anti-US sentiment, the ambitious military leader now heads one of the most aggressive and unpopular military campaigns in memory.

A recent book about Gen. David Petraeus, the director of the CIA, called him “the most transformative American military leader since the days of Gen. George Marshall.” (1)

With no hobbies, no fishing, no hunting, no golf, the five-foot-nine, 155-pound Petraeus, who wears his brown hair neatly parted, is known as a colossal worker. Since he assumed the central command of Centcom, he is known as a man who answers his emails at all hours of the day and night, a man whose days are full of secure computer screens, secure phones, with top-secret documents arranged around a compulsively immaculate desk. Once Petraeus was given command in Afghanistan, his star rose even more precipitously, and he became the director of the CIA and the czar of President Obama’s drone warfare strategy in Afghanistan.

However, the general’s personal qualities and publicly touted accomplishments conceal as much as they reveal, and analysis of this key administration figure’s actual achievements, and the present policies he has come to personify, suggests a less effective and prescient leader than the one generally portrayed.

Petraeus once said, “I don’t want to be the face of policy,”(2) but apparently fate has decided otherwise. Under President Barack Obama, the general today heads a massive, secret service that uses drones, cell phone monitoring and night assaults by US troops to eliminate high-value targets in the war on terror. This targeting system has drones, known as “the unblinking eye,” loitering over areas reportedly containing Afghan insurgents, while specially trained CIA Special Collection and military units convert the raw data obtained from drone surveillance and track mobile phone calls to map out an insurgent network vulnerable to attack from US raids or drone strikes.

Under Obama, the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) with its constituent operating forces – Green Berets, Army Rangers, Seal Team Six – have managed to occupy the pinnacle of the US military’s prestige.

The Rise to Fame

Petraeus rose to fame in the military the old-fashioned way – by leading apparently successful operations against those identified as enemies of his country. After a major US operation in Iraq, called “The Surge,” drastically diminished violence there, Bob Woodward noted (3) that perhaps no other soldier has been held in such universal esteem as Petraeus. In a testimonial dinner that Woodward described (3) as being “more like the Academy Awards” than a serious ceremony, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates proclaimed that because of the general, “The darkness has receded” in Iraq. In the aftermath, Petraeus’ staff began to call him, “The Legend of Iraq.” The Iraqis call him “King David.” (4)

The US system of military targeting employed during The Surge is used today by US forces in Afghanistan. After Petraeus was appointed commander-in-chief of Centcom in October 2008, he appointed Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal to become the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) forces responsible for hunting al-Qaeda in Iraq. He used tactics that would later be called “collaborative warfare,” which uses signal intercepts, human sources, tribal informants, analysis of cell phone traffic and other sources that allow lightning-quick and sometimes concurrent operations on the ground. Under Petraeus, McChrystal’s targeting emphasized speed, not lengthy examination of data. It aimed at launching attacks within hours – without having completed authentication of the information. (5)

According to several serving and former US intelligence and military officials interviewed by Truthout, in 2006 and 2007, the tribal leaders in Iraq had already begun to turn against al-Qaeda, and they quickly asked for US funds to help them betray the jihadists by revealing their safe houses and providing intelligence that would end their influence.

Historically, the tribes depended on smuggling for their income, and al-Qaeda had begun to disrupt this. Adding to the dislike of tribal leaders were attempts by al-Qaeda men to marry women from local tribes. In addition, al-Qaeda had used mosques for beheading operations, shelled playgrounds and executed innocent citizens, leaving headless bodies lying around. The sheer brutality eroded much of its local support.

For months, US forces patiently worked with tribal leaders, giving them huge funds and bribes in order to build local security forces throughout Anbar. “The surge killed one hell of a lot of people,” said a reproving former senior CIA source, but he later said that he agreed with former CIA official Cofer Black, who told President George Bush that “after we’re through, the al-Qaeda, those guys will have flies walking across their eyeballs.”(6)

New Methods, New Targets

Today, Petraeus heads a massive, “secret” policy under President Barack Obama that uses drones, cell phone monitoring and night assaults by US troops to eliminate high-value targets in the war on terror.

One of the results of this strategy was that the rate of drone strikes rose dramatically. In the fall of 2010, having now become the CIA director, Petraeus – following the lead of former CIA director Leon Panetta – was instructed to use the drone arm of the military as part of the new “National Strategy on Counterterrorism,” that had been in operation but wasn’t publicly disclosed (7) until June 29, 2011, in a document that commits the United States to “disrupt, dismantle, and eventually defeat Al-Qaeda affiliates and adherents” in South Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, East Africa, Europe, Iraq, the Magreb and Sahel regions, Southeast Asia and Central Africa. Thus, in places like Pakistan and Yemen, drone warfare has moved from being on the secret fringes to the very center of the White House’s strategy. The secret drone war is not very secret anymore.

The Coming of the Drone

When he was CIA director, Leon Panetta was firmly convinced that unmanned drones were a weapon of strategic effectiveness and that their elimination of terrorists would limit backlash in the countries of their operation. During 2004 to 2007, a total of 12 drone strikes only were effected in Pakistan, all against supposedly high-value targets from al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

But Panetta was a little engine that knew no rest. The rate of drone strikes in the second half of 2008 totaled an average of four or five a month, but, thanks to Panetta’s efforts, in 2009, they suddenly rose to 53. By 2010, the number of strikes more than doubled to 118, and in his first press conference on February 25, 2009, Panetta said that the drone strikes had successfully destabilized al-Qaeda and destroyed its leadership. He was premature, but he would prove to be right.

At that time, Gen. Petraeus was a hold-out – a strategist who thought the drone a dubious commodity. Petraeus took the line that drone strikes were useful in limited areas, but he had deep misgivings about them, believing that the weapon acted to fuel anti-US sentiments in Pakistan, according to several sources interviewed by Truthout.

As time passed, Gen. Petraeus began to see the drone’s potential to destroy al-Qaeda leadership, even though he and senior CIA colleagues knew the targets in Pakistan and Afghanistan were likely to be Afghan Taliban and their allies, not al-Qaeda. (8)

In May 2009, before McChrystal arrived, US Special Forces were carrying out 20 raids per month. By November, McChrystal had stepped up the pace to 90 per month, and by the following spring, he had increased the number again to nearly 250 a month – a 12.5-fold increase in one year.

Finally, during the transition from McChrystal to Petraeus in the summer of 2010, the number of raids increased to nearly 600 a month. In just two years, the monthly total of night raids had been expanded by a factor of 30. But according to former senior intelligence officials, as many as 40 raids were being carried out every night – a rate of more than 1,000 raids per month. These sources said recently that the total continues to grow.

President Obama never publicly acknowledged drones and their number of kills until last spring, and by then, the drone had become the key weapon in Obama’s way of making war – the linchpin of his administration’s counterterrorism strategy in Central Asia – a strategy increasingly being exported to places such as Yemen and the Horn of Africa.

A former senior CIA official objected to the “Nintendo” aspect of killing enemies by remote control, but acknowledged, “There are very bad people out there, and if we can kill them without putting American lives at risk, we should do it.”

And a former senior US military official also supported this: “You have to use any methodology you need as long as you can get the results from the weapon that you want to get. Drones work. They serve US interests. There are threats out there.”

The Executive War

Another change in US policy happened more quietly. In September 2009, Gen. Petraeus was in command in Afghanistan when he “ordered a broad expansion of clandestine military activity,” including the sending of American Special Operations troops to both friendly and hostile nations in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Horn of Africa, according to a report by Mark Mazzetti in The New York Times on May 24, 2010. Gen. Petraeus brought something like 7,000 Special Operations commandoes from Iraq to Afghanistan, and their targets have grown with their numbers. Worldwide, there is now a special antiterrorism force of about 60,000 strong operating in as many as 120 countries, according to former US intelligence officials.

The public may not have a good grasp of SOCOM’s activities, but the Obama administration is increasingly relying on its broad and largely secret mandate to counter global “instability.” According to Congressional reports, since 2001, SOCOM’s ranks have doubled and are funded to grow from 66,100 to 71,100 by 2015. Its budget tripled from 2001 to a 2012 total of $10.5 billion. In a recent article and confirmed in interviews with Truthout, Professor Andrew Bacevich, who teaches international affairs at Boston University, said, “The USSOM assets today go to more places and undertake more missions while enjoying greater freedom of action than ever before,” and he added that the tempo of deployments has risen too, including activities that range from reconnaissance and counterterrorism to humanitarian assistance and direct action. Bacevich suggested that perhaps the traditional motto of the Army’s Special Forces – “De Oppresso Liber” (“Free the Oppressed”) – should be changed to “Coming to a Third World Country Near You.”

Andrew Exum, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, expressed his own reservations in a recent article, alleging: “Spec ops have become a tempting option for civilian policymakers. Teams are easy to send into the field because they can be deployed with little disclosure to the public or to regional allies, minimal advance warning, and fewer bureaucratic approvals.” He cautioned that there are limits to what such deployment can accomplish.

Exum and others insisted that JSOC spends lots of time studying insurgents – their ethnic backgrounds, tribal ties, ancestral influences, along with habits and traditions. Special operations forces and their commanders often look at themselves in comparison to general purpose forces and conclude they are more capable of intervening with intelligence and sensitivity because of their studies.

But in the heat of battle, bad things happen. Blogger Dave Dilegge from Small Wars Journal quoted investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill about how JSOC night raids inside Afghanistan required entering Afghan homes at night, “corralling women,” herding men and women into a single room – which is an lethal insult to Afghan culture – plus hooding the men, zip-tying their arms, and helicoptering them to secret prisons. Scahill said that this may look efficient, but in effect, it totally sabotages US efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Taliban or their associates. Scahill also said that many JSOC raids rely on “on bad information from individuals in Afghanistan who are accusing their neighbors of being Taliban” or using the information “to settle personal grudges.” He added that, “The perception is that the United States government is just on a killing spree there, that they rarely get the right people.”

As Bacevich puts it, “As U.S. special ops forces roam the world slaying evildoers, the famous question posed by David Petraeus as the invasion of Iraq began – ‘Tell me how this ends’ – rises to the level of Talmudic conundrum.”

King of the Drones

Not only do critics interviewed by Truthout question the spread of JSOC’s power and reach, they also voiced misgivings about the innate political bent of the general’s mind. Under the implacable drive and guidance of Petraeus, the CIA has become a paramilitary operation, its technicians have been given opportunities for advancement and promotion, and the drone missions have been responsible for the huge growth of the Counterterrorism Center (CTC), which went from 300 employees in 2001 to about 2,500 people this year – more than 10 percent of the agency’s entire workforce, according to investigative reporter Gareth Porter, whose account has been confirmed by interviews with US intelligence officials.

This marriage between the military and the CIA has been a stormy one. Critics like former CIA operative Bob Baer argue that a military commander like Petraeus lives by directives, not carefully developed consensus. In the past, the job of the agency was to make cold-blooded assessments. Where the military man stries to impose policy preferences and wants quick and final advice, the analyst enjoys dealing with complexity. Where the military man deals with short tenures and time horizons, the analyst prefers scenarios and probabilities to predictions. Intelligence is not simply knowing a lot, but knowing a lot about the right things, as former CIA official Herman Meyer once said to me.

To many, including former military colleagues in the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Petraeus lacks the disciplined detachment that solid, objective analysis required. A former senior Department of Defense (DOD) official whose field is intelligence said that in no way is Petraeus involved “in any search for objective truth.” Petraeus isn’t a good listener. He likes summaries, not arguments. His mind has a quick trigger.

Another former DOD official who had known him well said that Petraeus was, “the consummate military politician. He is focused on himself above all other things.”

According to more than a half dozen sources, Petraeus is not a man to swim against the tide. He and the men around him know that the White House is the determining source of political power. Since his appointment as agency director, Petraeus has surrounded himself with those who are experts at divining his wishes and the choices that he is likely to make.

The historian Walter Bagehot once observed, “Ordinary administrators are common, and everyday life produces every day persons.” But everyone agrees that Petraeus is not ordinary. Bagehot also said that leadership requires a “commanding character and an original intellect.” But while Petraeus has the first, his critics allege he doesn’t have the second.

But Petraeus regulates great events. His is a famous Washington figure. He has become “the face of policy,” in spite of his original misgivings. He settles great matters; he is quick to see how few and plain are the alternatives in modern warfare and chooses the ones most productive of seemingly successful results. His routine diligence is colossal. He talks to the point; his manner is severe, his bearing purposeful. Said a former senior DOD source: “Petraeus is a brilliant executor, but his mind was made to toil in a rut. He will never experience the excitements of mental origination.”

However, for now his radiance fills the sky.



“All In: The Education of General David Petraeus,” Paula Broadwell and Vernon Loeb.

“Obama’s Wars,” Bob Woodward, pp. 17.

Woodward, op cit, pp 16.


Former senior DOD official.

“Bush at War,” Bob Woodward, pp.53.

National Strategy for Counterterrorism, White House Press Release, June 29, 2011.

Former senior US intelligence officials.

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