Al-Qaeda's new leader, Ayman Zawahiri speaks from an undisclosed… (Reuters )
Reporting from Aspen, Colo. — The U.S. is "doubling down" on its strategy of covert targeted missile strikes in Pakistan in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death, believing that Al Qaeda is susceptible to a decisive blow, a senior Obama administration official said Friday.
"I think there are three to five senior leaders that if they're removed from the battlefield, would jeopardize Al Qaeda's capacity to regenerate," said retired Gen. Douglas Lute, who oversees Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy at the National Security Council. He declined to name them, other than Ayman al Zawahiri, who succeeded Bin Laden as Al Qaeda's leader.
"We've got to take advantage of the fact that when Bin Laden died, Al Qaeda was in uncharted waters," Lute said. "This is a period of turbulence.... You need to go for the knockout punch."
Lute's comments were an unusually explicit statement of the thinking behind the administration's increased reliance on drones and other forms of remote attack against Al Qaeda. He avoided specifically referring to drone strikes, which are not officially acknowledged by the government, and instead talked of covert programs in Pakistan. But his meaning was clear.
In a candid assessment, Lute also said the administration had not envisioned the extent to which senior Pakistani officials would be embarrassed less by the presence of Bin Laden in their country than by the U.S. raid to kill him without their knowledge.
"We underestimated somewhat the humiliation factor generated by the raid itself," he said.
Lute's remarks in a panel discussion at the Aspen Security Forum here came after he was asked to respond to comments Thursday night by retired Adm. Dennis Blair, who was forced to resign last year as director of national intelligence. Blair, who left after Obama sided with the CIA in a series of policy disputes between that agency and Blair's office, said drone strikes have become counterproductive because they are provoking public outrage in Pakistan and potentially creating new enemies.
Blair said the U.S. should offer Pakistan the chance to "put two hands on the trigger" as a partner in the program — and therefore only carry out strikes the Pakistanis approve. As it stands, he said, the attacks are undertaken without consultation with Pakistan's government, despite occasional cooperation in the past.
Blair also argued against the U.S. conducting unilateral drone strikes in Yemen and Somalia.
"We're treating the countries just as places where we go and attack," he said.
Blair's comments marked the first time a former Obama administration official had publicly criticized a key tenet of the president's national security strategy.
His views on drone attacks were repudiated by other former senior government officials attending the Aspen conference, including former California Congresswoman Jane Harman, a Democrat who chaired a homeland security intelligence subcommittee.
"Drone attacks … are a crucial tool in our counter-terrorism arsenal and I support them," she said.
The disagreement is part of a broader debate over the efficacy of relatively low-cost drone strikes versus the far more expensive, long-term use of troops on the ground to wage a sustained counter-terrorism campaign. The administration has moved to draw down U.S. troop strength in the region, believing that the costs are unsustainable.
Blair argued that the key to defeating Al Qaeda was for the Pakistani military to mount a sustained counterinsurgency to clear and hold the Afghanistan border areas where the group's leaders have taken refuge.
Lute, reflecting the administration's view, noted that Pakistan's military has a presence in those areas, but despite billions in U.S. aid, its army has shown neither the willingness nor the capacity to root out militants.
Asked about the current threat posed by Al Qaeda, Lute echoed comments made here Thursday by Michael Leiter, who recently departed as head of the National Counterterrorism Center.
Al Qaeda has been wounded, but not yet defeated, he said, adding, "We're not ready to declare victory."
Leiter had said that Al Qaeda's leaders in Pakistan were "on the ropes," but the organization remained capable of attacks and "Pakistan remains a huge problem" because it allows safe haven for Al Qaeda and affiliated groups in its tribal areas along the Afghan border.