06/01/2012 10:57 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Happens When They Get Drones?

David Ignatius' gripping novels are quickly emerging as the spy industry's top smart, complex intelligence yarns to read on long flights.  His made-for-movies stories seem to be a hybridization of LeCarre's with a twist of Michael Crichton as they reveal tectonic fault lines between an overly self-confident, reckless America and a fragmented, in spots radicalized, almost always misunderstood Islamic world.

His latest novel, Bloodmoney: A Novel of Espionage, has recently appeared in paperback and should be required reading for wannabe strategists who want a glimpse of how messy and convulsive the future is probably going to be.  America will remain a big, important power in the foreseeable future, but a myriad of new players pushing back on U.S. institutions and interests heighten the danger for a declining superpower holding tightly to anachronistic global arrangements.

Ignatius, a long-time national security columnist for the Washington Post and author of the novel-turned-movie Body of Lies, makes an important policy point via his fiction that 'the other guys' -- in this case, vengeance-driven Pakistanis who have legitimate grievances against a drone-lobbing America -- will one day have the technology and systems sophistication to to turn the West's military and economic assets against it.

Bloodmoney probably should have been called Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, but that title was already taken by the late Chalmers Johnson, who wrote a pre-9/11 treatise arguing that American hubris, the global sprawl of U.S. military bases, and influence-machinery around the world were going to trigger push-back, or blowback as it were, from states no longer wanting to play by U.S. rules in a post-Cold War World -- eventually leading to a cataclysmic event.

One of the cases Johnson starts with in the book was the 1993 murder of CIA employees at a stoplight near the entrance to the Central Intelligence Agency by an aggrieved Pakistani man, Aimal Qazi, who was upset about American policy towards Palestinians.

When the terror strikes by al Qaeda hit Washington, New York, and rural Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, Johnson's Blowback became the most difficult in-print but out of stock book to get. The publisher could not keep the fast-selling, prescient books on the shelves. 

Ignatius' novel starts out with a scene similar to this real world event, in which a U.S. clandestine drone wiping out an innocent family -- mother and father, siblings, nieces and nephews -- of an unusually smart tribal youth from South Waziristan, Pakistan.  The youth, Omar, was the West's dream kid -- moving via educational opportunity from the backward, tribal pool of an ignorant, terrorist-generating culture to
modernity -- becoming a globally-aware, traveled and, in the Western sense, rational person. (drone photo credit: Reuters)

Ignatius' Omar is a mathematical wunderkind who not only escaped the geographic gravitational forces of his Pashtun tribe but became an academic consultant to the world's spy agencies who wanted to know more about the world he came from.  This fictional fabrication again aligns closely with real life. 

Like some others from Pakistan and Afghanistan who have quietly and deeply buried their grievances with the West -- perhaps because of religion, or the loss of loved ones due to the military operations of the U.S. and its allies -- and bided their time until they were in important military and intelligence operations that will eventually lead to the killing their duped allies, Omar is committed to achieving a 'calibrated revenge' against those who killed his family. 

I won't reveal more of the plot, but I want to raise a few of the themes and nods that Ignatius weaves into this smart page-turner.

First of all, the West may be deceiving itself that education and roads, modernity writ large, will be a quick fix, correcting ancient behavioral norms and codes written deeply into the DNA of tribal groups -- in this case, Pashtun tribes but certainly not limited to them.

Ignatius' protagonist killer in the book is a professor possessed by deep impulses to avenge his family's murder.

Ignatius' portrait of Omar defies easy typecasting as he sits between primitive and turbo-charged modern worlds; interestingly, Ignatius positions him at the end of the novel to be the one most ready to see a way back to 'balance,' or a deal that would end the killing and restore calm.

None of the other personalities in the book -- not the head of Pakistan's ISI, or the operatives of an off-the-books intelligence operation, or the spymasters running the CIA -- could understand that Omar could choose to stop his successful campaign and might strike an arrangement.  Ignatius is telling us that American policymakers still don't understand what could be achieved with the Taliban -- that it's not just a tug of war between a Pashtun uber alles formula or obliterating them.

Secondly, Ignatius has subtly taken sides in the novel, and surprisingly it's with the victimized Pakistani.  Omar, driven by understandable outrage, hit above his weight and achieved an intellectual and technical sophistication besting his adversaries.  The Americans in the novel arrogantly thought it would be impossible for anyone from relatively primitive circumstances in tribal zones in Pakistan  to develop the capacity to challenge the U.S. and Western allies in the way Omar did.  Ignatius reminds the reader that technology and innovation are globally accessible today and that neither the U.S. nor any other power have a monopoly on technological or economic innovation. 

In other words, Ignatius warns that weapons technology -- and complex financial instruments and structures -- will not remain the sole preserve of the U.S. and its allies.  What we throw at them may come back and be deployed against us. 

The pattern and link analysis that the Department of Treasury, National Security Agency, CIA, FBI, and other parts of the intelligence industrial complex have used with great effect to target terrorists and influence the behavior of thuggish officials in problematic nations, like Iran, North Korea and Syria, could conceivably be acquired by our rivals.

While the U.S. is today preparing to further expand its drone force and, as of late arm Italian drones, Iran is trying to develop its own drones.  As are, it seems China and Russia.

The question that President Obama, who has admitted direct, routinized involvement in creating the drone 'kill list', should ponder is what will happen as the barriers to entry on drone technology fall enough so that an adversary's drones can be deployed against the U.S. and its allied forces and interests.

The key message behind David Ignatius' interesting book is that that day is probably coming sooner than most think.

Steve Clemons is Washington Editor at Large at The Atlantic, where this post first appeared. Clemons can be followed on Twitter at @SCClemons.