A couple of friends and I recently participated in a study group session discussing Afghanistan and Pakistan with former Afghanistan-deployed US foreign service officer and former Marine Matthew Hoh. In passing he posed the question “What’s the most dangerous job in the Middle East?”
Hoh’s answer: “Being the Number 3 leader in al-Qaeda.”
Now al-Qaeda has announced that its No. 3 leader, Said al-Masri, has been killed, most likely by a drone attack. I have the same concerns that General Stanley McChrystal has about drone attacks — they kill too many innocent people.
But when a senior member of al Qaeda is struck, one could arguably count this as a big plus in the use of drones.
To some degree, even those who have the greatest doubts about America’s current military deployment to Afghanistan probably understand that any real exit strategy must be accompanied by the death or capture of al-Qaeda’s No. 1 & No. 2, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.
In an email exchange with Matthew Hoh about his prescience about al-Qaeda’s No. 3, he sent me the following sobering, and definitively contrarian discussion points about both the death of al-Masri and of the efficacy of drones:
From Matthew Hoh:
~ I agree with Steve that we should be focused on al-Qaeda and its associated movements (with more emphasis on its associated movements), as that is who poses an actual threat to the US and its interests (although by no means is this an existential threat).
~ While al-Masri seems to be a senior member of AQ, having gotten in on the ground floor with OBL in Afghanistan and with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood dating to Sadat’s assassination and so ties to al-Zawahiri, he was identified by AQ as being their operational leader in Afghanistan.
With less than 100 AQ members in Afghanistan (my belief is it is a good deal fewer) and with their operations limited to joint suicide attacks with the Haqqani network on targets in Kabul and eastern Afghanistan, attacks that are counter-productive as they distance the Haqqani Taliban sect and AQ from the Afghan people, was al-Masri that important of a target and was he really the #3 guy for the organization if he was solely focused on Afghan operations which are pretty limited and fairly inconsequential?
No doubt he was important due to his seniority and, for our collective thoughts and emotions, his ties to the 9/11 operation, but does this really change anything?
~ Al-Masri was supposedly killed ten days ago (May 22 according to a Pak intel source). He’s already been replaced and it doesn’t appear his death has any effect on AQ or TB operations in eastern Afghanistan. We didn’t even know he was dead until AQ told us. If he was important, either because of command of operations or because of his figurative leadership, I don’t believe AQ would have announced his death until his replacement was fully in control and operations had resumed.
If killing these guys had the effect it does in Tom Clancy novels or the TV show “24” on a terrorist organization’s operations, then we would have “won” this thing several years ago.
~ The fact that we didn’t announce his death when it occurred or shortly after (which we have done on other occasions) begs the question: was he the actual target or was this luck (luck, or what used to be called Fortune, always having a preeminent role in warfare)? At the very least, it demonstrates that we don’t have the human intelligence assets to conduct post-strike assessments and questions our pre-strike intelligence and targeting.
~ Supposedly we killed 5 women and 2 children. No dispute from the US on that; and while it is war and civilians will be killed, attempts to regain our moral authority on the world stage, let alone in Pakistan (and not just the tribal areas) take a step back every time women and children are killed.
Similarly, how the US looks hypocritical and petty when it decries the Iranian elections as fraudulent, but then backs the Afghan elections with not just diplomatic support, but with 30,000 more troops and billions more US dollars; the US loses popular support, trust and opinion when women and children are killed by machines (that we deny exist or provide no comment on) and has a hard time arguing against as criminal the actions of the Afghan Taliban, Pakistani Taliban and AQ-AM.
~ While the drones are terrific pieces of technological weaponry, providing a wonderful tactical advantage, they by themselves are by no means capable of providing strategic success. The Ft. Hood attack and attempted Christmas Day and Times Square attacks, how were they affected by the drone strikes?
If anything, the drone strikes seem to be the recruitment tool that leads these individuals to AQ (I think we are seeing much more passive recruitment efforts by AQ, recruits come to them, they don’t have to actively recruit).
Not saying we shouldn’t conduct such operations and go after AQ leadership (I’m still upset we have not killed bin-Laden and Zawahiri), but we shouldn’t think that such tactical operations will bring us “victory” over AQ and terrorism.
~ Additionally, much like our response in the Gulf to protect the shoreline by deploying surface booms to combat a subsurface spill, are we mis-identfying and mis-interpreting the threat, and how it exists and operates, and engaging in strategy and operations that are dictated and defined by the tools we have at hand rather than by a proper and actual understanding of the total nature and essence of the enemy?
Sobering, smart analysis.
— Steve Clemons