The new face of a faceless global war: drones and the CIA.
In the decade since Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has developed an air force of drones to fight its new enemies. Faced with terrorists willing to take any life, we built machines that hunt and kill but don't bleed.
In the next decade, our reliance on drones and the spies who support them may increase for a different reason: We're losing friends.
Since Sept. 11, the U.S. drone fleet has grown from a few dozen to 7,000. The Air Force now trains more pilots to operate drones than to fly bombers or fighter jets. Spy drones have flown extensively in Afghanistan and Iraq, where we've fought ground wars. But killer drones have been particularly useful in Pakistan, where we can't send troops.
Every time U.S. ground forces have entered its territory—most recently in the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden—Pakistan has freaked out. But Pakistani leaders have tolerated U.S. drone strikes that killed nearly 2,000 insurgents in the country's frontier provinces over the past five years. In fact, since the Bin Laden raid, the drone strikes have escalated and spread.
Hand in hand with the drone war, the CIA's role has expanded. Like the drones, the CIA is invisible. It can hunt and kill in a country without officially being there. So while the military operates our drones in Afghanistan, the CIA operates them in Pakistan. Apparently, we've been allowed to launch some of our drone missions over Pakistan from bases within the country.
That may change. The Bin Laden raid, coupled with a lethal incident involving a U.S. agent inside Pakistan, has frayed the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Instead of investigating Pakistani officials who may have helped shelter Bin Laden, Pakistan has rounded up people it suspects of helping the CIA set up the raid. Pakistan has also snuffed out a U.S. program to train Pakistani troops to fight al-Qaida. And the CIA has caught insurgents being tipped off when the U.S. shares intelligence with Pakistan.
So the U.S. is preparing to fight on without Pakistan's help. The backup plan is to move our drones to Afghan bases and fly them into Pakistan from there. And as we pull out of Afghanistan, we'd leave drones in place. That way, we can continue to hunt al-Qaida in both countries even when, as a human presence, we're no longer there.
A similar scenario is unfolding in Yemen. With Bin Laden's decline and death, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, led by radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, has become the chief orchestrator of terror plots against the U.S. The regime in Yemen, like the one in Pakistan, prefers that we fight this enemy with drones rather than ground forces.
Until now, the drone war in Yemen has been run by the U.S. military. But the military has screwed up. First it misidentified a target and killed a Yemeni envoy. Then it failed three times to take out Awlaki. But the bigger problem is that the Yemeni regime is unraveling. Its collaboration with U.S. forces has collapsed. Its political opponents want to take over and end U.S. military operations.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photograph of Leon Panetta and Gen. David Petraeus by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.