Second, members of the special operations community constantly repeat the mantra of F3EAD, pronounced “feed,” the acronym for “Find, Fix, Finish, Exploit, Analyze, Disseminate.” Found in U.S. Army Field Manual 3-60 (“The Targeting Process”), F3EAD is a process to attempt to capture, kill, or influence (for example, sending a text message warning “we’re watching you”) specific high-value targets within a broader counterinsurgency campaign. While it may be necessary to kill these individuals, the preferred options are to place the targets under constant surveillance to better understand their networks, or to interrogate them to gather intelligence. One of the overriding imperatives of counterinsurgency missions is to constantly increase and refine situational awareness of the environment.

As Brigadier General Michael Nagata — who colleagues say has perhaps as good an insight into recent clandestine operations as anyone in the U.S. military — noted in 2011: “The fundamental value in capturing the enemy is so that you have a better grasp of the environment. The more you understand the environment, the more effective your choices will be.” (Nagata was recently assigned to lead SOCOM, U.S. Central Command, where presumably he will be able to put his theories into practice.) By that thinking, the problem with stand-off airstrikes instead of riskier operations to capture suspected militants is that you cannot enhance your understanding of the villages or cities where strikes occur, much less adequately measure the effects. As one naval officer described the current strategy: “All we do in Pakistan is the find, fix, finish; we can do that forever.” Nor do such strikes always finish the target: A senior official with extensive background in special operations told me that in 10 percent of the airstrikes he has watched — whether from Hellfire missiles or 2,000 pound bombs — the intended victim has simply walked or run away unharmed from a destroyed house or vehicle. “Squirters,” they are called.

Third, most servicemembers exposed to direct combat can describe the instances — or near-instances — of collateral damage and civilian casualties caused by U.S. airstrikes, despite the procedural safeguards in place that attempt to prevent this.