Because it’s become the primary means by which we fight at this point, other than the ground forces in Afghanistan, who are still in harm’s way and are gradually being phased out. Drone strikes have become a major tactic we’re using in this war. I also think it’s an amazing and relatively new technology. It is true that the Israelis were using it decades ago, and we used it somewhat in the war in Iraq. But I think the wedding of drones to telecommunications, to intel analysis, with the ability to remotely pilot—I mean, I’ve got a nephew who is remotely piloting unmanned aerial vehicles over Afghanistan from his Marine base in Okinawa. This is a new phenomenon, and it’s one with a scary capability.
The implications of being able to watch anywhere in the world with great patience and exactitude over a long period of time—to select targets and kill them remotely from a distance—is a frankly terrifying tool. And in the long run, you can certainly imagine it being used against us. As I wrote in the book, I think it’s, on one hand, one of the greatest advances in modern American warfare, which sounds like an odd thing to say about such a scary tool. But it does meet the three criteria for lawful warfare better than any previous weapons system. And that is, once you’ve got over the hurdle of necessity, the next two principals are discrimination and proportion.
In the area of discrimination, there never has been a tool that is more effective at choosing targets more carefully than drones. We can literally shoot a missile that’s essentially a rifle shot at an individual—which, if it works, obviates collateral damage, period. You hit the target you aim at. I’m not saying it’s always used wisely or there’s never a mistake made. But compared to the alternatives—which are dropping 500-pound bombs or sending in the troops—the scale of collateral damage is exponentially smaller than ever before.
Do you think this drone war era will ever end?
It will continue to evolve. But no, I don’t think so. Just as I don’t think war will ever end. Just as there is evil in men’s hearts, there are people who would take from others by force, and people will fight back. And I think the tools of war just continue to evolve. If you look at it from one direction, this is a desirable evolution, considering the tactics we used in World War II—mass bombings of entire cities, you know? There’s a really interesting book by Steven Pinker [The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Declined] about the general reduction of violence throughout the world. I don’t think war is ever going away, but our ability to choose targets and to use violence will become increasingly discriminating and precise.
There’s been a lot of criticism of the movie Zero Dark Thirty and its depiction of torture. Based on your own research, do you think torture played a role in the hunt for bin Laden, and, if so, how important do you think that role was?
It definitely played a role. It was not a key factor. The reason we found bin Laden was that he was being housed by a fellow named Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. We knew of the existence of Ahmed, who was bin Laden’s primary courier, long before we knew who he was. Because some of the earliest detainees—both those arrested by the U.S. and those arrested in other nations—informed our intelligence agencies of the existence of a courier named Ahmed from Kuwait, who was possibly a key link to bin Laden. So that information came from interrogations that are rather famous for having used coercive methods, or torture, if you’re using the broad definition of torture. So, it’s a fact.
I think those who say that torture was not involved are basically trimming the argument by saying, “Well, it didn’t matter that we knew there was an important courier called Ahmed the Kuwaiti, because we didn’t know who that was, and it wasn’t until we learned who that was that it became key in finding bin Laden.” Well, yes and no. One of the reasons we were interested in finding out who Ahmed the Kuwaiti was, was because we had a good idea that he was really important. And he could lead us to bin Laden, and we had that knowledge because of information obtained in questioning involving torture.
So, does that mean we couldn’t have gotten that information without torturing anybody? No. I don’t know that we couldn’t have. But I do know that that’s what happened. I think that anyone who makes the argument that torture was not involved has, well, a lot of questions to answer.
Do you ever foresee a time in which torture is not used?
We’re not using it now, not to my understanding. The use of coercive interrogation ended during the Bush administration—roughly 2004, 2005, after the scandals broke about Abu Ghraib and other places. It has been banned by the CIA, by the military—I know David Petraeus, when he was the director of the CIA, was very clear to say it’s important for the country to live by its values.
Does that mean there aren’t people who break the rules? Probably not. But those are the rules, and I think that’s the way it is, at least in the United States right now. I do think we’re still practicing the rendition where we deliver suspects or detainees to either their home country or other countries where they are less scrupulous of such things.
You make the case that al Qaeda, by the time of bin Laden’s killing, had pretty much ceased to exist as a serious, organized terrorist threat. So, looking ahead at Obama’s second term as commander in chief, who are the people that the U.S. military is fighting in 2013 and beyond?
Well, clearly, Islamist fanaticism is not gone. And you have groups in various countries around the world who form their own organizations and fly the flag of al Qaeda to aggrandize themselves and attract recruits. So al Qaeda has become a cause as opposed to what it used to be, which was a very real terrorist international organization. What we’re doing is combating these organizations around the world—some of which call themselves al Qaeda, some of which call themselves other things, that are determined to, by force, erect a fundamentalist state, whether it’s Yemen or Mali or Somalia or the Philippines, the various places these organizations pop up.
I think these organizations are very, very dangerous, but they aren’t a threat to the United States any more than a group of right-wing survivalists are. I mean, Timothy McVeigh launched one of the most dangerous, terrible terrorist attacks on this country. He was a right-wing extremist, not an Islamist.
There are cunning people out there capable of anything. Blowing up a plane, blowing up a building, setting off a bomb in Times Square—these kinds of things will continue to happen from time to time. But something like al Qaeda, which raised a quarter-million dollars, recruited suicide bombers to travel to the United States, got them flight trainers, arranged to get them on four separate airliners and coordinated assaults on New York and Washington in the same morning—that was a major military operation conducted by an extremely capable international terrorist group, and that group doesn’t exist anymore.
We’re set to leave Afghanistan next year. Any thoughts on whether that decision was the right one?
Yeah, I think the faster we get out of Afghanistan, the better. I think it’s obvious to anyone paying attention to that country that the broader ambition of creating a central government that functions well is really beyond the grasp of the United States. I believe we’ve done everything we can possibly do to enable that country to get back on its feet, short of adopting it permanently as a 51st state. I think at some point we realized that there’s no more we can do, and it’s really up to the Afghans themselves.
You’ve now written books on, for lack of a better term, the most badass missions in recent U.S. military history. What’s next?
PW's Summer Guide 2014