President Barack Obama speaks at a campaign event at Chicago Cultural Center on Friday. He spoke at length about the disappointing jobs numbers. Image Credit: AP

The theory and practice of warfare has evolved with amazing speed since Al Qaida’s attack on mainland America in September 2001. In less than 11 years it is already possible to discern three separate phases. First, we had the era of ground invasion followed by military occupation.

This concept, which feels terribly 20th century today, appeared at first to work well, with the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan followed by the easy destruction of Saddam Hussain in Iraq. But by 2005 it was obvious that the strategy was failing. The resurgence of the Taliban and the success of the Iraqi insurgencies led to an urgent reassessment. In desperation, the United States turned to the more sophisticated methodology once favoured by the British and before them the Romans — the elaboration of a system of alliances, otherwise known as “divide and rule”.

This was the second phase, the so-called “surge” of 2007, which made the reputation of General David Petraeus and rescued the second Bush presidency from disaster. Of greater significance than the temporary increase in troop numbers on the ground was the decision by the Western Iraqi tribes, encouraged by the payment of enormous bribes, to detach themselves, at least temporarily, from Al Qaida. The same tactics did not work, however, when duplicated two years later in Afghanistan — and so US policy has unobtrusively moved into a third phase: a new and as yet only partially understood doctrine of secret, unaccountable and illegal warfare. The guiding force has once again been General Petraeus, who is already being tipped as favourite to win the Republican nomination in the 2016 presidential elections. Appointed director of the CIA last summer, he swiftly converted the intelligence agency into a paramilitary organisation. Conventional military forces are scarcely relevant: it is Petraeus who now masterminds what George W. Bush used to call the “war on terror” from the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. President Barack Obama has reportedly allowed his CIA chief to direct Special Forces operation. If so, this is an unconstitutional move because these missions are no longer answerable to Congress. More important still, the CIA also masterminds and directs the drone strikes that have suddenly become the central element of US (and therefore British) military strategy.

Death and democracy

Even ten years ago, drones — remotely operated killing machines — were unthinkable because they seemed to spring direct from the imagination of a deranged science-fiction movie director. But today they dominate.

First of all, they can be deadly accurate. Tribal Afghans have been amazed not just that the car a Taliban leader was travelling in was precisely targeted — but that the missile went in through the door on the side he was sitting. The US claims drones have proved very effective at targeting and killing Taliban or Al Qaida leaders, but with the very minimum of civilian casualties. Second, US soldiers and airmen are not placed in harm’s way. This is very important in a democracy. In America, the killing of a dozen military personnel is a political event. The death of a dozen Afghan or Pakistani villages in a remote part of what used to be called the north-west frontier does not register, unless a US military spokesmen labels them “militants”, in which case it becomes a victory. There is no surprise, then — as the New York Times revealed in an important article on Tuesday — that Obama “has placed himself at the helm of a top secret ‘nominations’ process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical”. The least enviable task of an old-fashioned British home secretary was to sign the death warrant for convicted murderers.

According to the New York Times, the President has taken these exquisite agonies one stage further: “When a rare opportunity for a drone strike at a top terrorist arises, but his family is with him, it is the President who has reserved for himself the final moral calculation.” So, in the US, drone strikes are a good thing. In Pakistan, from where I write this, it is impossible to over-estimate the anger and distress they cause. Almost all Pakistanis feel they are personally under attack, and that America tramples on their precarious national sovereignty. There are good reasons for this. When, last year in Lahore, an out-of-control CIA operative shot dead two reportedly unarmed Pakistanis and his follow-up car ran over and killed a third, the American was spirited out of the country. Meanwhile, America refuses to apologise for killing 24 Pakistani servicemen in a botched ISAF operation. This is election year and Obama, having apologised already over Quran burning, may be nervous about a second apology, and has therefore confined himself to an expression of “regret”. I am told by a number of credible sources that this refusal to behave decently — allied to dismay at the use of drones as the weapon of default in tribal areas — is the reason for the unusual decision of the US ambassador in Islamabad, Cameron Munter, to step down after less than two years in his post.

According to a recent poll, more than two thirds of Pakistanis regard the US as an enemy. Britain used to be popular and respected in this part of the world for our wisdom and decency. Now, thanks to our refusal to challenge American military doctrine, the UK is hated, too.

— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2012