ASPEN, Colo. (AP) — Former U.S. intelligence chief Dennis Blair said Friday the U.S. should stop its drone campaign in Pakistan, and reconsider the $80 billion a year it spends to fight terrorism.
Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum, Blair said the CIA's unmanned aircraft operation aimed at al-Qaida is backfiring by damaging the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. The former director of national intelligence suggests giving Pakistan more say in what gets hit by drone strikes and when, despite Pakistan's record of tipping off militants when it gets advance word of U.S. action.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who previously headed the CIA, has lauded the drone campaign as a key tool to take out al-Qaida and other militants in Pakistan's tribal areas. Strikes, which have more than tripled year-to-year under the Obama administration, are done with tacit Pakistani assent, though publicly, Pakistani officials decry the hits. That tension has grown worse after the U.S. unilateral raid into Pakistan May 2 to kill al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, and an earlier incident in January, when a CIA contractor was held for killing two Pakistani men in Lahore that he said were trying to rob him.
Blair said the continuing drone strikes are more of a nuisance than a real threat to al-Qaida, and that only a ground campaign by Pakistan would truly threaten it and other militant organizations. The U.S. had been training forces for that purpose until the program was canceled by Pakistan in retaliation for the raid to kill Osama bin Laden.
Al Qaida "can sustain its level of resistance to an air-only campaign," he said. "I just see us with that strategy walking out on a thinner and thinner ledge and if even we get to the far end of it, we are not going to lower the fundamental threat to the U.S. any lower than we have it now."
Other conference speakers disagreed with his analysis, including Bush administration veteran Fran Townsend, the former chief counterterrorism adviser in the White House.
"This has been the key tool in degrading the Al Qaida leadership," Townsend said Friday, saying that without it, al-Qaida would be a far greater threat to the homeland.
Stephen Hadley, former national security adviser to President George W. Bush, said the Pakistani government in the past had assented to the strikes, if they were used against major targets.
"The line they drew...was boots on the ground, special (ops) forces in Pakistan," Hadley said. "We did a limited cross-border operation and it caused a huge outcry to the point where we said we're not going to do that anymore" unless it was to get bin Laden or his then-deputy Ayman al-Zawahri, "knowing you're going to pay in Pakistan public opinion. And we did," after bin Laden was killed.
Blair also suggested cutting the cost of hunting terrorists by relying more on local forces, especially in Yemen and Somalia. "Pull back on unilateral actions by the United States, except in extraordinary circumstances," he said.
The U.S. is already also working with indigenous forces in Yemen and Somalia, but also sustains a large and expensive offshore presence aboard a ship off the Yemeni coast, as well as flying armed and observation drones from Djibouti and other sites in the region.
Blair estimated that there are some 4,000 terrorists worldwide, and a budget of some $80 billion devoted to fighting them — a figure he said did not include the wars of Afghanistan or Iraq.
"That's $20 million for each of these people ... Is that proportionate?" he asked. He pointed out that 17 Americans have been killed inside the U.S. by terrorists in the decade since Sept. 11, including the 14 killed in the Ft. Hood massacre, while car accidents and daily crime combined have killed some 1.5 million people during the same 10 years.
"What is it that justifies this amount of money on this narrow problem?" he asked.
Blair, who was forced to resign by the Obama administration, says the White House undermined his authority as director of national intelligence by siding with the CIA, instead of telling it to listen to him.
"They sided enough with the CIA in ways that were public enough that it undercut my position," Blair said.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.