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The Use of Drones in Afghanistan

Aired November 24, 2009 - 15:00:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, U.S. drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Is this the dark side of modern warfare or is it a bright new future for a new U.S. military strategy?

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to the program.

The United States has embarked on a new era of robotic warfare amid concerns about the rising number of U.S. casualties in Afghanistan. In his first 10 months in office, President Barack Obama has ordered about the same number of drone attacks on suspected terrorist targets in Pakistan as President George W. Bush did over three years, and it's happening with virtually no public debate, despite hundreds of civilian casualties on the ground.

So is this effective, ethical warfare? Or does the United States now have an official policy of targeted assassinations?

First, CNN's Nic Robertson reports on robotic warfare over Afghanistan and Pakistan that's conducted from thousands of miles away in suburban America.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Look around this room. It's been hit by a missile fired from an unmanned aerial vehicle, a UAV, more commonly known as a drone. The family living here say children were killed in this U.S. attack. The children were never the target, but in Pakistan's tribal border region, the deaths spell trouble for U.S. foreign policy, where many believe that fighting with drones is cowardly.

PETER SINGER, AUTHOR, "WIRED FOR WAR": Last year, one of the most popular songs in Pakistani pop culture was a song whose lyrics talked about how America fights without honor.

ROBERTSON: Launched from just over the border in Afghanistan, the pilotless Predator and Reaper drones are the answer to so many of the U.S. military's problems, credited with killing more than a dozen Al Qaida leaders.

GENERAL DAVID DEPTULA, USAF: The real advantage of unmanned aircraft systems is they allow you to project power without projecting vulnerability.

ROBERTSON: This is what the view looks like from a drone, and this is how effective they can be. Those men on the corner are firing guns, the enemy eliminated, no service personnel put in harm's way. Why? Because the pilots who fly the drones never have to leave home. They control them from thousands of miles away in suburban America.

Major Morgan Andrews drives to work from his Las Vegas house. I asked whether it's like a videogame. No, he says. It's often all too real, helping comrades in harm's way.

MAJOR MORGAN ANDREWS, USAF PREDATOR PILOT: It's very easy, I guess, when something like that is happening to project yourself there.

ROBERTSON: For the top brass, the potential of these remote systems gets their hearts racing, too.

DEPTULA: The future, with respect to how you use these unmanned systems or remotely piloted systems, is really unlimited. And -- and we need to -- we need to open our minds and think more about capability and impact that we can use them to achieve as opposed to how we've done business in the past.

ROBERTSON: The U.S. military calls the deaths of children in Pakistan's border area regrettable, an acknowledgement that the awesome power of these machines can sometimes backfire.

Nic Robertson, CNN, London.


AMANPOUR: Joining me now to discuss this from Islamabad, Talat Masood, a former lieutenant general in the Pakistani army, from Washington, CNN's national security analyst Peter Bergen, who co-authored a new study of U.S. drone attacks, and right here in the studio, Vicki Divull, former assistant general counsel for the CIA.

Welcome to you all.

I want to start with you, Vicki, because this is a CIA program we're talking about. Apparently, some dozen or so top wanted militant terrorist leaders have been killed, some half of the CIA's most wanted. Are there any rules governing this? Is the CIA accountable?

VICKI DIVULL, U.S. NAVAL ACADEMY: Well, first, let me just say that what we know about this, what we know about the activities in the warzone of Afghanistan performed by the military, and what we know or think we know about CIA's activities or other government agencies' activities outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan and elsewhere are based on news accounts, and we don't know for sure whether that's, in fact, occurring. I don't know whether that's occurring, and I just want to make that a disclaimer. But we can work off what the press accounts have put forth to have a discussion.


AMANPOUR: So is this -- is this happening sort of in the dark and is anybody accountable to this? What are the rules?

DIVULL: Well, the rules at the Central Intelligence Agency is United States law and any other directives from the president of the United States. And...

AMANPOUR: Which is, in this case?

DIVULL: In this case, one could look to the assassination ban in the executive order. One could look to the laws passed by Congress barring certain types of killings overseas. In -- in this...

AMANPOUR: So are you saying, as general counsel, that this is potentially illegal?

DIVULL: No, I'm not saying that, because in -- in the sense of the assassination ban, that's a presidential order, and any president is free at any time to ignore, waive or secretly waive an order such as that. It's not a law.

In terms of the laws passed by Congress, I don't think any of them would apply here. So I don't think there is any legal bar under United States law to -- to prevent this from happening.

AMANPOUR: Is there any concern, any ethical concern that you have?

DIVULL: Oh, quite, yes. The -- the ethical concerns have to do with the fact that the United States is -- is abandoning the law enforcement model, which was much ridiculed as having been the only model before 9/11 and as taking on the war model. But in taking on the war model, you have to follow the rule -- the ethical and moral just war -- ethics of war. You can't blend them; you can't jump back and forth from one from the other.

If you're going to go outside the warzone and target people, that is not war, and you need to follow other rules. The rules would be, in my opinion, the rule of law, and you need to pursue those people and bring them to justice.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me go to General Talat Masood in Islamabad, where a lot of these drone strikes are happening. Is this having a good or a bad effect in Pakistan?

GEN. TALAT MASOOD, FORMER PAKISTANI MINISTRY OF DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Well, I think there is both a plus and a minus to this, in the sense that there is a moral dimension to it and also it is arousing a lot of political opposition to it, in the sense that it is also whipping up a lot of anti- Americanism, and people think that it's a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty. And at the same time, there is also a belief that if the United States is an ally, then how is it that it is, you know, targeting in our country?

On the other hand, it has undoubtedly some very good tactic advantage, in the sense that it has put the Taliban and the Al Qaida on the defensive, and there have been some very good targets taken out by the Predators, and the one is the most prominent was Baitullah Mehsud. And so I think, on balance, one can say that it has tactical advantages, but in the long run, if you really want that there should be no opposition, then you should win the hearts and minds of people, then it becomes questionable, whether in the long term, will it really, in the cost-benefit ratio, will it really help United States?

I think the best logic would be to sort of have an arrangement whereby Pakistan shares the control of this, even if it does not actually possess these. But the acquisition of the targets must be shared, and at the same time, I think the operational side should also be shared. Then it would be a great advantage. I think that will really be extremely helpful.

AMANPOUR: Let -- let me ask Peter Bergen, CNN's national security adviser here, so to speak, and also the co-author of a report with the New American Foundation. Peter, you're for these attacks. Why is that?

PETER BERGEN, CNN ANALYST: I wouldn't say necessarily for. I mean, I think in -- in the study we did, I said that they're the least bad option that exist, because, obviously, the United States military can't invade the tribal areas of Pakistan where many of these militants are based. When U.S. special forces went -- went over under Bush, there was tremendous pushback from the Pakistanis, and both the Bush administration and the Obama administration have really followed the same policy, which is to continue these drone attacks as really the only tool in the toolkit that really makes -- that's really possible.

And -- and, you know, I -- as General Masood said, there is increasingly an alignment between Pakistani strategic interests and American strategic interests when it comes to the Pakistani Taliban. And a U.S. drone strike killed Baitullah Mehsud. I was there in Pakistan when it happened. And Pakistani newspapers were basically pretty celebratory, having been previously somewhat critical.

AMANPOUR: Right. Right. But you know, and everybody at this table knows, that there's the likelihood -- and General Masood alluded to it -- to a sort of a cycle of revenge and jihadism and -- and -- and willing recruits from the -- from the civilian casualties, which is the fallout. I mean, what is the potential negative down the road?

BERGEN: Well, there are -- you know, there are quite a lot of negatives. I mean, you know, only 9 percent of Pakistanis have a favorable view of these drone strikes. As General Masood said, there's a feeling of infringement on Pakistani sovereignty. The United States is disliked by most Pakistanis, you know, et cetera, et cetera.


On the other hand, you have Pakistani politicians who used to criticize these strikes quite openly, are really saying very little, because the strikes are really, you know, attacking the enemies of the Pakistani state, who, after all, have killed thousands of Pakistani civilians the last two years, and these drone strikes, while they certainly killed civilians, have not killed anything like the number the Pakistani Taliban, who are the subject of these strikes, have killed just in the last several months in Pakistan.

AMANPOUR: And yet they are killing lots of civilians, these drone attacks. Can I turn to you again, Vicki Divull, on the whole legal aspect of this or the ethical, moral aspect, who chooses the targets? Why is there no public debate on this?

DIVULL: Well, we don't know who's choosing the targets. And we know that there's no public debate on this, because it's a covert action operation. It's a clandestine operation approved -- presumably, it better be -- approved by the president, because the law requires that.

So, no, we're not going to know who the targets are. We're not going to know how those targets are selected. We probably will never know.

AMANPOUR: Isn't that in itself a slippery slope? I've read that they're giving a lot more sort of jurisdiction to the Pakistani government. And I mean, who knows? Are they militant leaders? Are they Al Qaida leaders? Are they people that the Pakistani government doesn't like?

DIVULL: Well, putting aside the role of the Pakistani government or lack thereof, just in terms of what CIA does, you know, historically, they collect intelligence. They go around and -- and steal secrets around the world. Historically, they haven't used those secrets to form hit lists. They haven't used them as -- as means of targeting people for death. CIA is not -- never been a killing machine.

AMANPOUR: But now it is.

DIVULL: According to these news reports, yes. I don't know that they are for sure.

AMANPOUR: So does the United States -- does this say that the United States now has an official policy of targeted assassination?

DIVULL: The word "assassination" is a difficult one and a tricky one. I think targeted killing is more accurate, because assassination brings back memories of world leaders being targeted, et cetera. I consider a targeted killing to be any time you put an attack out against a specific named person. And if you take out people around them, then I presume, if this is happening, that there's some balancing done in -- in each case of, how bad is the bad person? How many people are with them? This kind of -- of -- of decision-making is likely happening, if this is what's going on.

AMANPOUR: General Masood, quickly, before we go to a break, they're saying now that some of these drones are actually taking off from bases inside Pakistan, they're not coming from -- from outside, and that, in fact, the Pakistani government does have a deal with the U.S., to deny it publicly, but to agree with it. Is that your understanding?

MASOOD: Well, I think, to a great extent, you're right, in the sense that there is today sort of a tacit understanding, especially between the military, as well as between the civilian leadership. You know, they think that they are useful and -- and they are taking out targets, but at the same time, they think that they are politically very explosive. In that sense, they are denying and they are protesting.

So there is a contradiction and a hypocrisy involved in the leadership, as far as their attitude is concerned. But I think this is the way that our relationship with the U.S. is at the moment.

AMANPOUR: OK. I want to come back and talk to Peter Bergen about Baitullah Mehsud, but that'll be after a break. Stay with us, and we'll be back in a moment.




UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How about those drones? Tell me about...

ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN, CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: Yeah, do you have any other questions?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You want to -- you want to talk about how well those are working for you?

MULLEN: Well, I actually won't talk about any operational details.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK. We'll go back to strategy then.


AMANPOUR: That was the U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen showing just how sensitive this issue is. And joining me again, Talat Masood, Peter Bergen, and Vicki Divull.

Peter, I want to go back to the Baitullah Mehsud killing, the -- the leader of the Pakistani Taliban who was killed over the summer. By all accounts, it took some 16 attempts over 14 months and then scores of people were killed around him, civilians, as well. And we're looking at the debris here. I mean, at what point is the cost-benefit ratio sustainable?

BERGEN: Well, you know, one way to answer that, Christiane, is to actually look at what the costs have actually been. And we did a fairly careful examination of all the different drone strikes that have -- looking at the best-reported -- the best reporting out there on these strikes, and we found that, as opposed to some estimates, which were as high as 98 percent civilian casualties, in some estimates, they were as low as 10 percent, we found that over -- since 2006, about 30 -- about a third of the casualties have been civilians, which means that two-thirds have been militants, and that number has dropped to about a quarter under President Obama.

Now, some people will say that number is too high, and some people will say that's the cost of doing business. We just wanted to put out some numbers out there, because this has been a very inflamed debate, and we thought it'll be helpful to actually say, well, what is the actual civilian casualty death rate here...


AMANPOUR: And you know not everybody agrees with that, because there are still people in -- in your community, the counterinsurgency, counterterrorism community who think it's sort of the opposite, that there are actually many more civilians killed.

BERGEN: Yeah, but, I mean, our -- I think our study is, you know, probably the most authoritative. It's certainly the most detailed. And so, you know, again, it's -- it's a matter of -- what do you -- you have to weigh these differences...

AMANPOUR: It's uncomfortable (ph).

BERGEN: Yeah, no, Baitullah probably killed several hundred American soldiers in the last couple of years, since he was the main source of suicide attackers in Afghanistan. He certainly killed probably literally thousands of Pakistani civilians. And this is a very difficult question.

As -- as the general -- former general counsel points out, these are tricky issues, because you -- you know, how many people might Baitullah have continued to have killed if he was still alive today? These are the sorts of ethical and legal issues you have to weigh.

AMANPOUR: But, again, it's so interesting that this is happening. I mean, the U.S. has -- people have been outraged at targeting killings, you know, for instance, in the Palestinian territories, and right now, there's almost nothing said publicly about this, obviously, because U.S. lives are at risk.

But let me ask General Masood in Islamabad. These aerial killings, does it not affect the amount of intelligence that maybe you could benefit and -- and you could reap from people if you were able to capture them or if you're able to capture their allies, if you're able to capture their -- their diaries, their cell phones, who knows what?

MASOOD: There's no doubt about it, that if you were able to capture these people instead of sort of killing them, you'd be able to get very valuable intelligence. There's no doubt. But the problem is that it's very difficult and inaccessible to, you know, sort of get hold of them and capture them, because the way that they're operating in the terrain. And that is why, in some cases, you know the Pakistan army has been using, in fact, artillery and aircraft missiles.

So in that case, if you really compare it with artillery fire or if you compare it with aircraft missiles, then I think these are more accurate and less damaging. So -- but the only problem is that these are being used by the Americans instead of by the Pakistanis, so this is where the problem arises. And if somehow the other -- you know, this contradiction is removed, I think it would be extremely helpful, and then it would not be considered as though, you know, it is American, and the ownership of the war will also be that of Pakistan, although, you know, since the democratic government in Pakistan has taken over, as far as the ownership part is concerned, people in Pakistan now genuinely think it is our war, whereas in the past, during President Musharraf's time, it was considered to be the American war.

AMANPOUR: That's -- that's a very interesting shift. I want to play this piece of interview that the U.N. special rapporteur has just -- has just put out.


PHILIP ALSTON, U.N. SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE: Under what set of laws is the CIA actually operating? This is CIA; this is not the Department of Defense.


Normally, wars are fought by a Defense Department, not by an intelligence agency. The fears of the international community that the U.S. is operating perhaps a targeted assassination program that's not constrained by the appropriate rules will simply be increased.


AMANPOUR: So, Vicki, I'm going to turn to you, because he also says that, when he tried to get information from the CIA, he was, quote, "blown off." When he tried to talk to U.S. officials at the U.N., they wouldn't return his calls about this issue. What can the U.S. establishment do to assuage some of these concerns or not?

DIVULL: I think "or not." I mean, I think, if there is such a program done clandestinely, done under a covert action authority issued by the president of the United States, they're not going to talk about it. They're not going to be able to talk it perhaps ever.

Now, I know the Bush administration did acknowledge one of the Predator shoots in Yemen, so there is something on the record that -- that does acknowledge it. But I think his point is interesting in the sense that, what laws govern this? Again, no U.S. laws are -- are -- say that this is wrong. Could Congress pass such a law? Yes, but they haven't, and they, frankly, seem to be a little bit asleep at the switch on this one.

AMANPOUR: Is there something strange about the U.S. doing this in Pakistan, a country with which it is not at war?

DIVULL: Yes, that -- that -- when you talk about taking it out of the warzone into other sovereign countries, that's when the question of doing it, A, clandestinely, B, not by the military, C, where does it end? Once you go to Pakistan or Yemen, do you go to Saudi Arabia? Do you go to Kenya? Do you go to Berlin? Do you go to Detroit? I don't know. I don't know where it ends once you've broken the warzone model and moved from killing with military efforts versus killing with civilian clandestine efforts.

AMANPOUR: Well, to that very question, let us play this sound bite from the American colonel in charge of -- of -- of standing this operation up.


COL. CHRIS CHAMBLISS, USAF CREECH COMMANDER: As we produce those crews, as we gain ground control stations, that means that we can stand up another combat air patrol and get more capability over the top of soldiers, Marines, special operators in theater, and that's what this is all about.


AMANPOUR: So, Peter, here we have the colonel talking about standing up more of these aerial patrols. Is this the face of the next generation of American warriors?

BERGEN: Oh, I think, to a large degree, yes. I mean, we saw in Iraq, you know, it became very much a drone war, in terms of intelligence and also, you know, taking out a number of terrorist leaders and -- and others. So, I mean, this is the wave of the future, whether you like it or not.

AMANPOUR: And how does it affect those -- everybody talks about combat stress, and perhaps they wouldn't have so much stress if they're sitting at joysticks in suburban American.

BERGEN: Well, I -- I can't really speak to that, but -- but I -- you know, I think -- I would like to raise this, the following point, which is that, on the legal issues, it is, I think -- this program, I think, is becoming a little bit more dicey, because it's one thing to take out the leader of the Pakistani Taliban or a major Al Qaida figure. But as you sort of go further into this, and you're taking our lower and lower level militants, I think the authorizations, which, of course, are highly classified, I suspect, don't deal with people very low down the totem pole. And as we're killing more and more lower level militants -- and to some degree, civilians -- I think the legal authorization for this program may eventually run out of steam. That may be tomorrow or it could be a year from now, but I think it's an important issue.

AMANPOUR: And lastly, to you, General Masood, do you think the Pakistani military, with the U.S. drones, are going to be successful against Al Qaida and Pakistan -- Al Qaida and the Taliban in Pakistan?

MASOOD: Well, I'm sure that Pakistan army will be successful irrespective of the drones -- use of drones or not, although the drones would be helpful in some ways, and they are helpful. But at the same time, I think this time the Pakistan army and the people of Pakistan are truly determined to fight this war and win -- win it, because under no circumstances do they think that there is any future for Pakistan unless this succeeds, so they are fighting for the -- their future, rather than for anything else.

AMANPOUR: All right. All of you, thank you so much, General Masood, Peter Bergen, Vicki Divull. And this time next week, President Obama is scheduled to make his long-awaited decision on Afghanistan, and you can be sure drones is going to figure into the future of these wars. And you can find out much more about America's drone wars on our Web site,, where you can see Nic Robertson's documentary on this topic.

And coming up, from a revolutionary form of warfare to a revolutionary form of art. We want to bid farewell to an artist who transformed our way of seeing our world.



AMANPOUR: In our "Post-Script" tonight, we take you from aerial warfare to a bird's-eye view of beauty. We want to remember someone who brought us light and color on a grand-scale.

The artist Jeanne-Claude, the wife and longtime collaborator of Christo, died last week of a brain aneurysm. Here in New York, the couple was best known for "The Gates," shrouding Central Park in over 7,000 sheets of brilliant orange. In other massive projects, Jeanne-Claude and Christo wrapped up world monuments, such as the Pont Neuf in Paris to look almost like gifts. They covered the German Reichstag in white after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And they stretched pink fabric around 11 islands in Biscayne Bay, near Miami.

Jeanne-Claude and Christo's art was ephemeral, but lasting in the imagination. The pieces came down after a few days or a few weeks, but for those brief moments they were up, Jeanne-Claude and Christo gave us a breath of beauty and a way to expand our vision of the world.

From all of us here in New York, goodbye for now.