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Former Adviser to Gen. Stanley McChrystal Calls for Moratorium on US Drone Strikes in Pakistan

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Andrew Exum is a former Army captain who has been openly critical of the drone attacks inside Pakistan. Exum served on active duty in the US Army from 2000 until 2004, including two years leading a platoon of Army Rangers inside Iraq and Afghanistan. He recently returned from two months in Afghanistan, where he served as part of the advisory team of the commander of US troops there, General Stanley McChrystal. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: At least ten people were killed today in a strike by a US drone in northwest Pakistan. There have been dozens of drone strikes in the past year that have targeted Pakistani and foreign militants but also killed hundreds of civilians.

The latest attack comes as a new poll commissioned by the satellite network Al Jazeera shows a majority of Pakistanis now view the United States as their country’s greatest threat. According to Gallup Pakistan, 59 percent of respondents listed the US as the number one threat to Pakistan, ahead of 18 percent for neighboring India and 11 percent for Taliban fighters. Sixty-seven percent also said they oppose the US drone attacks.

The poll results come just days after the apparent assassination of the Taliban leader in Pakistan, Baitullah Mehsud, in a US drone attack. Mehsud has been accused of organizing scores of attacks inside Pakistan, including the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

AMY GOODMAN: Our next guest is a former Army captain who has been openly critical of the drone attacks inside Pakistan. Andrew Exum served on active duty in the US Army from 2000 until 2004, including two years leading a platoon of Army Rangers inside Iraq and Afghanistan. He recently returned from two months in Afghanistan, where he served as part of the advisory team of the commander of US troops there, General Stanley McChrystal. Andrew Exum is the author of the book This Man’s Army: A Soldier’s Story from the Frontlines of the War on Terror. In May, he co-authored an opinion piece in the New York Times along with David Kilcullen, former adviser to General David Petraeus, that called for a “moratorium” on drone strikes inside Pakistan. Andrew Exum is currently a fellow with the Center for a New American Security in Washington, DC, where he joins us now.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Explain your call for a moratorium on drone attacks.

ANDREW EXUM: Yeah, you know, I should preface this by saying that I’m not saying that drone strikes aren’t a part of a proposed solution, but I think right now they’re part of the problem.

One of the — we’ve learned two things from Iraq and Afghanistan that I think are relevant here. The first is, is that you can’t kill your way out of these wars. The second thing is, if you pursue a counterterror strategy, or a counterterror tactic, rather, that’s divorced from other initiatives to extend the reach of governance to provide essential services to a population, then you can actually exacerbate the problem in the area you’re trying to affect. So, just to give you an example, in Iraq in 2003, we pursued a decapitation campaign against former Baath regime leaders, but what we ended up doing was, by pursuing very heavy-handed tactics, we actually exacerbated the cycle of violence in Iraq and, I think, worked at cross-purposes to ourselves.

In Pakistan, I worry that we’re doing more or less the same thing. Again, the death of a militant like Baitullah Mehsud is not necessarily something to be mourned. But the deaths of low-level fighters and of their brothers and cousins — you know, at some point you get to the point where you’re not just attacking al-Qaeda leaders, you’re also — you’re also making more enemies than you’re killing them off. You’re attacking people’s brothers and cousins, and you’re creating a problem for yourself that’s actually going to grow and not contract.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: On the issue of drone attacks, you say that they could be part of a proposed solution. There was a report released in June authored by Philip Alston. He’s the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. This is what he wrote as part of the report: “Targeted killings carried out by drone attacks on the territory of other states are increasingly common and remain deeply troubling… The US government should disclose the legal basis for such killings and identify any safeguards designed to reduce collateral civilian casualties and ensure that the government has targeted the correct person.” Your response?

ANDREW EXUM: Well, I think that the second part of his statement is exactly correct. I think that you have to go through a degree of due diligence any time you’re going to pursue any type of capture or kill mission. Again, these types of missions are part of any coherent counterinsurgency strategy. It’s how you keep the enemy off balance.

But having said that, I think one of the things that’s missing from the gentleman — and I’m in an odd position of actually defending these drone attacks — is that — and again, without getting into anything that’s classified — in the open sources or just in the media, it’s quite apparent, and it’s been reported, that the Pakistanis are openly cooperating with us with a lot of these drone attacks. The Pakistanis are quite enthusiastic about using these drone attacks to kill people like Baitullah Mehsud, who’s considered to be a threat against the Pakistani state. Where it gets tricky is where we want to target groups like Haqqani network or like the Quetta Shura Taliban, which are actually seen as assets for the Pakistani government. But these are the groups that are targeting US soldiers in Afghanistan, allied soldiers in Afghanistan, and indeed the government of Afghanistan. So I think the one thing that’s missing from that report is the degree of cooperation that exists between the Pakistanis and the US with respect to these drone attacks.

And one of the things that’s frustrating is that the Pakistani government is not open about that degree of cooperation and has not been honest with its people. So you’re going to see, in Punjab and in Sindh, you’re going to see a lot of outrage towards these drone attacks, and in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, bizarrely perhaps, they’re actually more popular. But again, I worry about this, that we’re creating this dynamic whereby — because it just looks like these Americans fighting from the sky and invading or, rather, impeding on Pakistani sovereignty, that we’re actually setting ourselves back with respect to our strategic aims in Pakistan.

AMY GOODMAN: As the war in Afghanistan expands, as President Obama expands the war, your take on a military solution here, Andrew Exum?

ANDREW EXUM: Well, I mean, I don’t believe in a military solution. I mean, even when you use force, you’re using it for a political end.

Having said that, I think in Afghanistan, at least — and keep in mind, I was working for General McChrystal earlier this summer, but his writ basically ends at the Durand Line. He’s the commander of the NATO force in Afghanistan, and that force does not have any authority past the borders of Afghanistan, so no operations pass the borders.

Having said that, in order to be successful in Afghanistan, we need a mixture of things. Do we need combat operations against the Haqqani network, against the Quetta Shura Taliban? Sure. We also, more importantly, need to be training up Afghan institutions. So a lot of our strategy, even though it’s lopsidedly in favor of military means, we need to focus a lot on governance, economic development, addressing the needs of the Afghan people. And one of the things that — and it’s inspiring to see in the micro level, if you look at the Marines down in Helmand Province, they’re using a combat assessment format, which is allowing them to not just go after the enemy, to not just try to kill or capture their way to victory, but to look at what exactly is driving the conflict at the local level. In some cases it might be land reform. In some cases it might be land disputes. In some cases it might be irrigation or agriculture. And by addressing those problems, which may or may not be enemy-related, by addressing those problems, we can stabilize Afghanistan.

The unfortunate reality is, on the ground in Afghanistan, we’ve got about 90,000 troops, and we have very few civilians. The civilian surge that we wanted to accompany any military efforts in Afghanistan has been very slow to arrive. And I think it’s unrealistic to expect that civilians are going to arrive in any significant or useful numbers until the spring of next year. And that’s a big problem for our strategy in Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: How open is the military to your call for a moratorium on drone attacks?

ANDREW EXUM: Well, the military is very much divided. I mean, you’ve got some within the military that favor a more counterterror approach to this campaign, that favor targeting al-Qaeda’s senior leadership. That, after all, is why we were initially in Afghanistan. You’ve got some in the military that would argue, you know what, it’s not necessarily about killing — decapitating the senior leadership. A guy like Stanley McChrystal, the current general in Afghanistan, this is a guy that’s tried to, in commanding various Special Operations units in Afghanistan, he’s tried to kill his way to victory. It doesn’t work. I mean, we have tried, with great enthusiasm and great effort, to try to kill our way toward some sort of solution in Afghanistan. And what we’ve realized is that we have to create an environment in Afghanistan by building up Afghan institutions that makes Afghanistan inhospitable towards these transnational terror groups. So there’s a dynamic argument within the military.

But I think with the intelligence services, it’s a completely different environment. Where I’ve gotten the most pushback with respect to our arguments against drone strikes has actually been from our nation’s intelligence services. I believe that they’re under a tremendous amount of pressure to kill senior leaders within al-Qaeda, and I believe they’re trying to use whatever means they think are going to allow them to achieve that tactical end.

But again, that’s not the President’s stated aim. We’re trying to create an area that’s inhospitable towards these transnational terror groups. Whether or not we kill Osama bin Laden in the long run is really not what matters the most.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrew Exum, I want to thank you very much for being with us.

ANDREW EXUM: Sure thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Former Army captain who served in 2000 to 2004, recently returned from two months in Afghanistan, author of the book This Man’s Army, and he co-authored an opinion piece in the Times along with David Kilcullen, former adviser to General David Petraeus, just two months ago that called for a moratorium on drone strikes inside Pakistan.

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