Read the WSJ‘s drones/al-Qaeda story and the NYT‘s follow-up. As I write at the Windy, this is indeed a weak point in the counterinsurgents’ argument:

… the question is why the U.S. is able to reap actionable intelligence against its main enemy, al-Qaeda, where there are no U.S. troops, or even really Pakistani troops, but it couldn’t do the same thing against its subsidiary enemy, the Taliban, if it capped U.S. and NATO troop levels at 68,000. Perhaps the circumstances really are different — the Taliban, as Pashtuns, have a much closer relationship to Afghanistan than the mostly Arab upper echelon of al-Qaeda does to Pashtun Pakistan — but if the argument really is that counterinsurgency is a prerequisite for intelligence gathering, the Pakistani case needs to be further explored, because it really does look like a counterexample.

I’m more sympathetic to the counterinsurgents’ argument than I am to any alternative, but I think the counterinsurgents are making a mistake by glossing past this. Robert Haddick at SWJ, for instance, reads the stories, concludes that "anonymous officials are attempting to make the case that intelligence-driven assassinations of al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan, combined with lawful domestic surveillance techniques, will be enough to effectively protect the U.S. from terror attacks" (duh), and flips the burden of proof:

 …the administration officials who are making this case in the New York Times and Washington Post must reassure skeptics that U.S. intelligence collection on al Qaeda, both overseas and inside the U.S., will be very good. One argument for why the U.S. needs to maintain a large presence in “Af-Pak” is that such a presence is needed for the intelligence that a counter-terror strategy relies on.

But the Pakistan case really does cut against that point. We don’t have any such large presence in Pakistan, let alone in the tribal areas. And we’re hearing reports of al-Qaeda targets being killed and harrassed and — well, if not contained, harrassed; let’s stick with "harrassed," for sake of making presumptions. Now, there are a few responses here. One is to say that the intelligence network wouldn’t exist without the U.S.’s over-the-horizon presence in Afghanistan; but you’d need evidence for that, and I haven’t seen any. Another is to contend that we don’t really know whether the drones really are killing who we’re told they’re killing; or, relatedly, that the kill rate is unacceptably high. A third, proposed by Exum and Kilcullen, is that the blowback potentials are too high. And that, I’ll fully admit, worries me a lot. It weirds me out that we should be pissed about death-from-above in, say, Kunduz on Monday but OK with death-from-above in, say, South Waziristan on Tuesday. McChrystal has ended the use of airstrikes for anything but force protection, as Defense Secretary Gates reiterated last night, but they’re still an offensive weapon across the border.

In any event, it doesn’t help any counterinsurgent’s case to respond to a reasonable objection and then say, "Well, you have to convince me first." Then Robert moves on:

Proponents of the counter-terror/law enforcement approach are hoping to avoid the cost and risk of an expanded COIN campaign. But a counter-terror/law enforcement approach has its own costs and risks. Absent a large U.S. military presence, getting the intelligence to strike al Qaeda leadership targets will require the U.S. government to make deals with the most unsavory characters in Central Asia. Do the intelligence officers who will be called upon to aggressively develop this constant stream of intelligence wonder when they will be called upon to discuss their actions either in front of a congressional committee or perhaps a grand jury?

Unsavory characters like… the ISI? The election-thief of Kabul and his band of merry warlords? We’re palling around with them with a large military presence. And no one within the Obama administration is arguing for pulling out. (Gibbs, today: "Leaving Afghanistan isn’t an option.") Instead, the counterterrorism side of the argument is arguing for keeping the U.S. military presence at… the largest it’s ever been in Afghanistan. So while I take the point that perhaps a smaller-than-maximal-but-still-bigger-than-ever footprint might cause the U.S. to sidle up closer to unsavory characters– well, actually, wait. No, I don’t. How would that actually work?

A point of Robert’s that I do take is the need for the nation to come to an actual consensus on what’s acceptable activity here. It has to be as open as possible, with as much congressional support as possible, and as much public support as possible. (I recall a certain DFHer general saying, "At the end of the day, we would be in much worse shape to have a decision made without that level of public debate.") If Robert believes we have to actually break the law to be responsible here, then he should say what laws are problematic here, and the country should debate that proposition. But I’m not really sure what legal impediments are actually in place here that would endanger the warfighters or the intelligence operatives, and certainly Congress hasn’t received word of them. (Unless I’m having a massive memory-fail at the moment…)