Photo via ISAFMedia/Flickr.
If there's anyone deeply familiar with the US's ongoing secretive drone campaign throughout the Middle East, it's former Army General Stanley McChrystal. As head of the US military's Joint Special Operations Command McChrystal oversaw a marked uptick of drones strikes in Afghansitan before retiring in 2010. Only now, he's warning about impending drone blowback.
Yesterday, McChrystal told BBC Today that the "tremendous amount of resentment" that US drones have instilled across the region is now difficult to avoid. When asked about the near future of hunter-killer drone operations, he also warned that they shouldn't be used as an "antiseptic":
There's a danger that something [that] feels easy to do and without the risk to yourself, almost antiseptic to the person shooting, doesn't feel that way at the point of impact. And so it lowers the threshold for taking operations because it feels easy, there's a danger in that... And then the other part is there's a perception of arrogance, there is a perception of helpless people in an area being shot at like thunderbolts from the sky by an entity that is acting as though they have omniscience and omnipotence, and you can create a tremendous amount of resentment inside populations, even not the people that are themselves being targeted, but around, because of the way it appears and feels.
“So I think that we need to be very, very cautious: what seems like a panacea to the messiness of war is not that at all,” McChystral admitted.
It's not the first time the former commander of the war in Afghanistan has questioned the use of and hype around militarized drones. In fact, you could say he's become one of the drone war's biggest critics. Since leaving his post in the wake of a damning Rolling Stone profile, McChrystal has been an increasingly vocal, if cautious, opponent of the shadowy campaign.
At the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival, McChrsytal offered a blunt endorsement of the technology. "We should be using drones a lot," McChrystal told CBS News. But he made it clear that amid all the hype, we should understand what drones shouldn't be used for. Drones are no substitution for classic boots-on-the-ground information gathering in sensitive, or otherwise high-risk or confusing places: "I hope we don’t use them to the exclusion of teaching people [foreign] languages, [and] sending people to live” in regions of conflict," McChrystal emphasized. His remarks earned him a rare standing ovation.
To that point, in early 2013, McChrsytal opened up to Foreign Affairs about whether the efforts he headed up in Iraq led to an emphasis on direct action (drone strikes, targeted killings, a reliance on Special Forces raids) rather than indirect action (training, and building local capacities). There's a sense that robotized war-from-afar is "satisfying, it’s clean, it’s low risk, it’s the cure for most ills," he said, which is why:
...many new presidents are initially enamored with the Central Intelligence Agency, because they are offered a covert fix for a complex problem. But if you go back in history, I can’t find a covert fix that solved a problem long term. There were some necessary covert actions, but there’s no “easy button” for some of these problems. That’s the danger of interpreting what we did in Iraq as being the panacea for future war. It’s not.”
And then there's the infamous Reuters interview, when McChrystal argued that in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen (which continue to bear the brunt of a drone campaign that's cooled off dramatically, though not entirely, since 2010) drones "are hated on an almost visceral level."
None of which should absolve McChrsytal for helping craft a counterterror approach with drones as its centerpiece. Still, the disgraced former general's continued backpedaling offers an unlikely voice of reason to a program we still know so little about.