Washington Post Article on Stealth Drone Used in OBL Surveillance

Fine reporting in the Washington Post today on the stealth drone used as part of surveillance of OBL’s compound and in the raid itself (ht Insta).  Even with that surveillance and the CIA ground team in the nearby house, however, the US still did not have unequivocal visual confirmation of OBL.  Two quick thoughts (drawing in part on a recent paper of mine on drones and targeted killing):

First. The drone is a great advance as a weapons platform, but it remains even more important in surveillance and intelligence gathering.  Moreover, the drone as a surveillance tool remains a part of the larger intelligence mosaic, and its effectiveness in Afghanistan and Pakistan relies in large part on the gradual building of on-the-ground intelligence, by both military intelligence and CIA.  We should not forget that – the drone that is used as the operational tip of the spear owes its effectiveness enormously to the on-the-ground intelligence that identified targets and individuals of interest, as well as to drones as intelligence gatherers.

The US has gradually built that intelligence capability in AfPak, but it has been slow in coming and is the result, as much as anything, of ten years of war.  Look at NATO’s fumbling with targeting in Libya, and one sees both the lack of technology and intelligence integration, and one also sees the lack of on-the-ground intelligence capability.  Targeting law officers I have spoken with in the past year stress their concern that although the US can do a targeting job largely unprecedented in the history of warfare in Afghanistan at this point, this is a function of ten years of war and the accumulation of intelligence assets.

Second. These targeting officers worry that human rights monitors will suddenly stop complaining about civilian casualties in Afghanistan, realize that they are tiny, and decide instead that they can now move the legal goalposts about acceptable targeting and collateral damage. Oh – you can do all these amazing things? – great, now they are the law, but they apply only to you and not the other side, which is free to come up with new ways to put civilians at risk to respond to your new legal obligations.  The human rights monitors tend to act like rapacious capitalists – their bottom-line response is … so what have you done for me lately?

But in some future conflict, the US will not have an instant ability to do what it does in AfPak, and could not even do it in Libya today; the accumulation of intelligence is simply not there.  These officers worry that the legal goal posts will have been moved by the outside monitors. Cries of disproportionality amounting to war crimes will become the new claim, once outside of a humanitarian war in which there is not good intelligence, or in a war in which policy frankly favors targeting lots more things because it is not a counterinsurgency operation looking to impress the local population.