The Hellfire missile is a Mach 1.1 bad boy packing a twenty-pound warhead. Its arrival is bound to be a significant emotional event in the day of those nearby. When a Hellfire dropped in on a few al-Qaeda types near Zawar Kili, Afghanistan on 4 February, the usual suspects started accusing us of killing innocent villagers who were scavenging for scrap metal. But the loud debate on that question concealed what should be the controversial part of that event.
By all reports, the missile was fired by the CIA at a group it had identified as al-Qaeda leaders. They included at least one or two people who were well over six feet tall. OBL is reported to be at least six-four, and a few of his closest advisers also are over six feet tall. (One can safely assume that the NBA will have little reason to recruit in Afghanistan for some time to come.) The remains found at the site included some evidence, such as airline schedules, that suggests that these people were something other than locals looking for something to sell.
The controversy over who was killed obscures the most significant fact: the CIA was doing the shooting. Was this our CIA, known since the Kennedy days as the Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight? The same guys who blew at least six chances to kill Fidel, with everything from an exploding cigar to a poisoned scuba suit? There are two immediate thoughts about this. It’s not troubling that the CIA is operating the Predator drones hanging out over many of the still-active trouble spots in Afghanistan and elsewhere. They are, after all, supposed to be in the intelligence-gathering business. But there are two types of Predators: those that are packing heat, and those that aren’t. For the CIA to be operating the armed Predators, and firing the missiles without adult supervision, marks an enormous change in the Agency’s mission. But is it a good idea?
The first thought is no, the CIA’s job is to gather intelligence. Leave the warmaking to the warriors who have the training, discipline, and doctrine to do the job. When I said that to one of my pals, he urged me to “think outside the box.” Much as I hate the terminology of company psychobabble, it was a good idea. After thinking about it a while, the “whys” seem to me to outweigh the “why nots.”
We have to be able to target individual terrorists, and kill them where we find them. This is a war against a new kind of enemy. It demands a new kind of strategy to defeat him. Whatever this strategy may be, one point is too important to compromise in any respect: we need to do this without changing the moral code and operating doctrine of our warriors. Through the Clinton years, the military culture was under assault. From “don’t ask, don’t tell,” to women in combat arms, to good ol’ Assistant Army Secretary Sarah Lister calling the Marines a bunch of “extremists,” everything that made America’s military work was systematically outlawed, short-changed, and officially insulted. It was so concerted an attack, and faced so little opposition even from military leaders, that the survival of the warrior culture was very much in doubt.
Not since Vietnam have we faced an enemy that didn’t wear uniforms. These guys not only don’t wear uniforms, they violate pretty much all the other rules of war, particularly the one that precludes the intentional killing of non-combatants. You can tell soldiers apart from terrorists on that basis alone. One of the reasons our armed forces are as good as they are is that their culture — coupled with their training and doctrine — puts them on the side of protecting the innocent. Becoming a soldier requires a mindset that is different from those who will, as Mr. Cheney has said, get “down and dirty” against this new kind of enemy. If we want our people to remain what they are — liberators, not oppressors — we need to preserve their values, and maintain their culture. You can’t do that if you want them to take on this other mission.
I have argued more than once that we need something like an American Mossad, like the fictional licensed-to-kill James Bond types, to seek out and kill individual terrorists. It appears we may now have something like that working in Afghanistan. Last month, President Bush signed a “Presidential finding” that has the effect of limiting, but not abandoning, the executive orders against assassination that go back to 1976. Presidential “findings” are usually made to authorize funding of covert operations of some sort. This one apparently goes farther, and lifts the constraints against the CIA using deadly force against individual terrorists.
It doesn’t matter one bit whether the “Washington Post” likes the idea that the CIA now has trigger-pullers on its payroll. It matters that the President gave the CIA and not the armed services the task of taking out individual terrorists. It’s the way we need to do this awful job without destroying the culture that has kept us free since that first bunch of “extremists” got together at Tunn’s Tavern in Philadelphia.
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