CIA playbook: A sour attempt at legalising terror via drones

Published: February 17, 2013

Al-Qaeda is not some regular disciplined force of militants, which can be bombed into oblivion. Al-Qaeda is an ideology and missiles cannot kill ideologies. PHOTO: REUTERS

With John O Brennan’s brainchild, the ‘play book’, almost ready for the president to sign and the leak of the Justice Department’s document explaining the legal rationale for the killing of American citizens who join al Qaeda, the drone debate is a hot topic once again. But for all the wrong reasons.

A brief introduction to the playbook would be that it sets rules regarding the clandestine drone operations of CIA around the world, a vague attempt at legalising the attacks and ‘minimising’ them to an extent. Something like this needed to be done by the US government as it was facing heavy criticism not only from its allies but also from its own people regarding the heavy reliance on technological warfare. Maybe the entire clamour around the globe for a reduction in drone strikes is way of securing or asking what the future holds as the US is blatantly using its might to carry out operations attacking the sovereignty of fragile third world countries.

Countries where it’s not even fighting a conventional war.

But the most intriguing aspect of the Brennan playbook story is that all of these ‘laws’ regarding drone strikes don’t apply to Pakistan and Yemen.


You can’t question.

The justice department’s document’s leak has also led to public outrage over the unjust killings of US citizens in drone strikes and other military operations by the state. Al-Aulaqi’s case is getting a lot of attention as a result of the leak and common US citizens have started to raise questions regarding the definition that state uses before categorising someone as a ‘prospective terrorist’.

All of this isn’t going to put an end to drone strikes. In fact as the US is now unwinding its military involvement in Afghanistan, soldiers are likely to be replaced by technology and more unmanned aerial strikes are expected in the region.

There has been a gradual escalation in number of these attacks since the start of this year. Around 11 civilians died within the first two weeks of January in four attacks as reported by Bill Roggio of the Long war journal.

During March 2011, a single ‘Signature (precision)’strike killed 38 civilians. It’s almost close to impossible to assess the civilian death toll of such strikes as the areas targeted by the CIA drones are inaccessible to government functionaries, journalists and other monitors.

Those who favour the drones argue that a conventional war would result in extensive collateral damage.

But is this really a war?

Do we know who exactly our enemy is?

Has killing Osama led to world peace?

Will killing more militants like him put an end to terrorism?

Terrorism cannot be defeated with military might alone.

Al Qaeda is not some regular disciplined force of militants, which can be bombed into oblivion. Al Qaeda is an ideology and missiles cannot kill ideologies.

Jason Burke, in his book ‘Al-Qaeda: Casting a shadow of terror’ described it as “broad and diverse movement of radical Islamic militancy” involving tens of thousands of people, some merely individuals, some who have formed groups.

According to him “these groups shift and change and grow and disappear”. Killing some in one region wouldn’t defeat terrorism. In fact it would result in more innocent civilian’s casualties.

“Al Qaeda is established in Syria. They’ve been there for about a year,” King Abdullah of Jordan revealed in an interview to Fareed Zakaria of CNN last month. This proves the notion that bombing is not the solution. It just leads to a geographical shift of the organisation. Perhaps the most troubling fact about this drone debate is CIA’s control over the institution, which is actually an extension of conventional warfare and should be under the direct command of military leadership.

Terrorism can only be eradicated by encouraging democratically elected and stable governments in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan. Most importantly economic growth should be stimulated in such countries so that the underprivileged don’t fall prey to militants offering money in return for terrorist activities.

Over the recent past, there has been no civilian death in the US due to a terrorist activity conducted by al Qaeda, whereas almost 150 kids have died in school shootings since 2003.

It is probably time for the US to pay more attention to its own gun laws rather than persisting with counter terrorism activities around the world.


Amna Baig

A baker by profession and has studied Economics at NUST Business School.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Jamaluddin

    Well researched and wonderfully written blog. 5 stars.Recommend

  • srk

    very well ‘baked’ blogRecommend

  • BlackJack

    Most importantly economic growth should be stimulated in such countries so that the underprivileged don’t fall prey to militants offering money in return for terrorist activities.

    There are at least 50 countries with a lower GDP per capita than Pakistan – how many of them are Al-Qaeda hubs? Why aren’t they in the ‘excluded list’? The article is old hat, and does not offer any perspective into the reasons why Al-Qaeda has been a force in Pakistan long before the drone strikes began, and as usual, seeks to blame their existence/ presence on everyone else. It is on your sovereign territory that this nebulous Al-Qaeda that you describe has established itself in the wake of a consistent power vacuum and institutionalized support for Wahabbism – learn to blame yourself for your own mistakes, even as other nations like Afghanistan continue to suffer from them.Recommend

  • Hammad

    Brilliant! Recommend

  • Haider Khan

    @Amna Baig: Sometimes there is no other alternate to eradicate militancy except the military solution. The unmanned drone technology is controlled by CIA because the agency has more technical expertise and resources that help in gathering information regarding terrorist safe havens than the US military. Those terrorist are worst than beasts. How can any government engage in peace talks with them if their(militants) main condition to resolve the conflict is to enforce sharia law. We have already experienced the so called sharia law in Swat(Pakistan). If anyone talk about women rights, minorities rights in those areas that person is killed brutally. If the government or private institution open up an educational institution those militants blow it up in few days with bombs. Even they are against the buying and selling of foreign manufactured products. Is there any other option left through which we can get rid of militancy? Recommend

  • srk

    a very well ‘baked’ blog miss baigRecommend

  • Awais

    I second your opinion that terrorism cannot be eradicated in the way as US thinks. It ought to be dealt with dialogues to not to jeopardize country’s respect as well as civilian’s.Recommend

  • Khan Bhai

    First, everyone wants to root out terrorism but question is are we creating more terrorists than we are taking out? Case in point, operations in Bajur agency. The whole area was leveled. Our gardener lost his home and got no compensation. Now the terrorists are dispersed all over Pakistan including Karachi and a whole group of people have lost their way of life. The resentment created will produce even more Taliban-sympathizers. So who is really benefiting?

    Second, if drone program is to continue then there should be openness and strict oversight. According to NYT, anyone who dies in a drone strike including children and women is declared Taliban combatants unless proven otherwise. No one asks for evidence if they really were Taliban or not.

    I would like to see terrorism rooted out, like all Pakistanis, but we won’t get anywhere with our current approach. Our current approach creates terrorist.Recommend

  • KKK

    Yes legalizing terror upon people who spread terror or willing to spread terror. Recommend

  • Saad

    Dialogue is NOT an option. There have been 14 peace treatise in Pakistan with Taliban in militants dominant regions but all breached by militants.
    As far as Al-Qaeda ideology is concerned, it will dissipate in a decade or two even if we do nothing about it; and it has already begun. It is evident from the shortage of suicide bombers. There was a time when barbarous suicide bombings had almost crippled the nation. But today we see here in our country that most of the attacks are not suicide attacks! The lot of teenagers that was bewitched by the wave of Jihad has ended now.
    May be Drones are not effective in long term; but for immediate remedy they are necessary. What alternative do we have? Recommend

  • Something Clever

    I can’t hear your whining over the buzzing soundRecommend

  • P


    Pakistan got involved in the mess because of the soviet-afghan war. Its the strategic location and political instability of Pakistan which pushed us deep into the dirt hole. I am sure if Sudan was next to Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda would have taken over their government.
    and for the fact of the matter, Al-Qaeda is present in Somalia Sudan Yemen Mali Syria and Palestine just to name a few (with lower gdp than Pakistan).
    It has nothing to do with low GDP.Poverty just aggravated the situation.
    No doubt we are responsible for making it a hub for al qaeda because of bad governance , but then its OUR responsibility to bring peace in our country.
    No other state of the world should be allowed to attack our sovereignty and do the job for us.
    We have an army which is considered amongst the best in the world. They are totally capable of handling the drones and using them where necessary. And instead of an intelligence agency bombing our lands, we should be given authority over it so that minimum causalities are assured through accountability.Recommend

  • Asif

    Good work appi; expand further and send it for publication in any national daily. I agree with your arguments that there is a link between poverty and terrorism that need to be adress through eco development. Recommend

  • BlackJack

    I agree with the first half of your comment completely, and your candour is heartening.

    On the army which is considered the best in the world without winning a single war, I have a slightly different view. Further, the idea that attacks carried out by the Pak army will cause less causalities is an assumption that is not borne out by previous facts, given that air power has been used against a civilian population before with a far higher percentage of collateral damage (so clearly the current drone option is better); improved targeting by drones is based on intelligence, and not the guy who operates the drone – whether it is being controlled from Pentagon or Pakhtunwa, the impact will be no different. Additionally, although I agree that no nation would allow strikes within their sovereign territory, the fact that it is being tolerated indicates that it is achieving results that are of value to the Pak establishment.Recommend

  • P

    do give it a read
    our military has been successful in cleansing swat from terrorists with quite minimal number of causalities.
    no doubt waziristan and FATA is a different case
    but then its a part of our country.
    what a shame it is for us not being able to have control over our own land.
    If army cannot do the job then whats the point of having an army in the first place?

    Generals are busy making money and property dealing.
    I would rather have them work towards all the benefits they avail for being in army.Recommend

  • Mehroz Ahmed

    Superbly presented…full marks…Recommend

  • BigotNot

    The reason for the droning is very simple. If you don’t clean up the trash in your own backyard and that trash is creating problems for other countries, the affected countries will have to clean up the trash in your backyard. The drones are the equipment used to clean up trash. If you don’t want drones, keep your backyard clean.Recommend

  • Maheen Rahman

    Good job, Amna. Recommend

  • Well done Amna

    @Haider Khan:
    Thanks uncle for your opinion…
    You will be wellpaid if you give such lectures in West…..
    There were no such militants in Iraq and no WMD still they were thrashed and millions suffered
    We are more scared of West than NorthRecommend

  • Khan Bhai

    @Haider Khan: CIA controls the drone program so that US military can have plausible deniability. Otherwise, US military’s budget ($700 Billion) is several times the CIA.Recommend

  • Farhan

    Violation of sovereignty is a major issue here on a diplomatic plane whereas collateral damage is a significant problem in human rights realm. Yet terrorism stands out as a major menace threatening our very way of life. This article brings out the issue to its core. Certainly very well researched.Recommend

  • Haider Khan

    @ Amna: If you are more scared of US military than Talibans then keep on nurturing Taliban till the time when every house of Pakistan is a victim of their attrocities. If you are talking of Iraq then please do mention here that Saddam Hussain was responsible for killing of more than a million muslims in Gulf war. The truth is that US was more interested in oil politics than mantaining peace in the region. Please dont get personal if someone dont agree with your viewpoint.
    @Khan Bhai: I agree that CIA budget is fraction of US defence budget but CIA’s job is to spy and gather intelligence information of Taliban safe haven and then on the basis of those intelligence information they attack Taliban. As the CIA traced Bin Laden’s compound in abbottabad with the help of a pakistani physician named Dr. Afridi. The US military couldn’t locate him for long ten years in Iraq but CIA did this job. Recommend

  • Khan

    @P: Our Army is accountable to NO ONE! Drones controlled by Pak Army will be a Big Mistake. Who is to say they won’t use the drones in Kashmir or even India and Afghanistan, Baluchistan? The Pak Army will ensure minimum casualties, you say? They didn’t know OBL was snoring for years a stone’s throw away from their top military academy! Who was held accountable for that? Who was held accountable for displacing millions and millions of people during warfare? Recommend

  • Stranger

    Well what do you expect US to do . How else to kill or annhilate terrorists? A drone a day keeps terrorists away.Recommend

  • jug

    Simplistic analysisRecommend

  • Rex Minor

    Terrorism in the world comprises of ignorance, injustice, slavery, unfair distribution of wealth, poverty and hegemony as the wars to keep these evils. They must be confronted and defeated. The neocon spin is a diversion.

    Rex Minor Recommend

  • Q

    Drones are highly unethicalRecommend