By Emily Manna
At just sixteen years old, Malala Yousafzai has survived a Taliban attack, been lauded by the world for her bravery in standing up for women’s education rights, and this month became the youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize nominee. She recently paid a visit to the White House as part of a US tour to promote education for girls in Pakistan, as well as her new memoir. Her message to President Obama is one that US policy makers need to hear: drone strikes aren’t working. Instead, they are entangling us in a war on terrorism that will extend to generations to come.
Both the White House and Malala released statements following her visit, but they gave two very different accounts of the content of the meeting. As reported by Lesley Clark for McClatchy DC, Malala says she told the President that “drone attacks are fueling terrorism,” but the White House statement only mentions the Obamas ’ support of Malala’s fight for girls’ education.
It is not surprising that Malala’s message on drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), as they are officially known, is unpopular in the administration. With several hundred drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Somalia under his belt, President Obama has made drones the cornerstone of his counterterrorism policy. There are a great many ethical arguments against the US government’s use of targeted killing, but as this administration grows increasingly reliant on drones, it is necessary to go beyond moral and legal arguments and question the program’s efficacy in reducing the threat of terrorism.
The case for drones
The overwhelming consensus on targeted killing seems to be that it is an unsavory but necessary alternative to sending US soldiers to places like Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institution argues that drones are relatively inexpensive both in terms of money and American lives, that they have taken a significant toll on al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, and that they cause fewer civilian casualties than other forms of bombing.
Several studies have addressed the impact of targeted killing on terrorist groups. Two such studies in the journal International Security concluded that the elimination of key leadership often leads to a terrorist group’s rapid demise. A working paper by Patrick Johnston of RAND Corporation and Anoop Sarbahi of Stanford University gives evidence that drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan are associated with a decline in violent militant activity by targeted groups, although they caution that this does not prove causality.
It is misleading, however, to examine only the decline of existing terrorist groups without also considering the potential growth of new ones. What is lacking in most studies is consideration of how US policy in the Middle East and Central Asia inspires anti-American sentiment and supports the recruitment efforts of al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. These studies, in effect, provide an academically-based justification for never-ending military involvement in the Middle East by examining only the short-term effectiveness of drones. In our system of two-year and four-year election cycles, short-term results are all that is needed to maintain political support for the targeted killing program.
The reality is that an opaque drone program causing hundreds of civilian casualties has brought instability and terror to people across the Middle East and Central Asia, undermined the authority of those countries’ governments, and nurtured a deepening resentment of the United States.
Why drones aren’t working
Dr. James Igoe Walsh, in a study for the US Army War College, takes both the short- and long-term impact of drones into account. Walsh concludes that drone strikes have little effect on militant activity in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as resilient insurgent groups can survive the deaths of their leaders and use anti-drone rhetoric to their advantage. In addition, weak intelligence means that strikes often fail to distinguish between militants of different groups, perhaps uniting former rivals against the United States. This is especially true in the case of “signature strikes,” a form of drone attack in which the US targets all military-age males who exhibit certain patterns of behavior, despite often not even knowing their names.
This kind of broad targeting (a contradiction in itself) has blurred the line between civilians and militants. Although US officials claim that drone strikes have become more accurate in Pakistan, their citation of fewer civilian casualties is more likely caused by a decreasing total number of strikes in Pakistan as the focus of the program has shifted to Yemen and Somalia. The New America Foundation reports that about 72 al Qaeda leaders have been killed in drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen since 2002, but with up to 400 total strikes and at least 3,000 dead, the case for accuracy is dubious at best.
This week, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch released a pair of reports on civilian casualties in Pakistan and Yemen, and new stories of innocents killed are continually emerging. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that between 451 and 1,032 civilians have been killed by American drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. The New America Foundation estimate is more along the lines of 322 to 373 civilians, with the remaining thousands of dead considered suspected militants—which we know could in fact be any military-age male in the area of the attack. It would therefore be impossible to make an accurate count of civilian deaths, even if there were a public record of every US drone strike.
To further obfuscate the count of civilian casualties, the Yemeni government has taken to covering up civilian deaths in an effort to prevent the spread of anti-government and anti-American sentiment in the country. Poverty and neglect in Yemen have caused a hatred of the government that has since morphed into a hatred of the Americans who cooperate with the government on drone strikes. In some areas of southern Yemen, al Qaeda has even set itself up as a makeshift government providing electricity and water to impoverished Yemenis. This allows al Qaeda to further portray itself as a viable alternative to the central government, as the population lives in fear of drone strikes it sees as partially the fault of the government.
Anti-American fervor over drone strikes extends far beyond direct victims, according to retired General Stanley McChrystal, former US commander in Afghanistan. McChrystal told Reuters, that UAVs create and foster resentment, and that “They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.” The Washington Post describes a scene in which al Qaeda-affiliated recruiters handed out flyers in the town of Radda the day after an attack that killed 13 people, calling on citizens to support their cause against the United States. Even when the victims are not civilians, fellow members of the tribes of militants killed may join al Qaeda to seek revenge, even if they did not previously share al Qaeda’s anti-American ideology.
The Pakistani government has recognized that US covert operations, including drone strikes and the raid that killed Osama bin Laden that have both stoked public outrage, undermine its credibility among Pakistanis, especially in tribal regions. In 2012, the Pakistani Parliament passed a resolution stating that “no overt or covert operations” by the US would be allowed in the country any longer, ending the quiet cooperation the US had previously received from the government.
Malala’s Call for Meaningful Policy, Meaningful Aid
Malala Yousafzai is, first and foremost, an activist for women’s education in Pakistan. The Taliban is her enemy, and the US rightfully lauds her efforts to undermine their message. But Malala recognizes that the US-targeted killing program is not supporting her campaign. Instead, it causes growing anti-American sentiment that emboldens the Taliban and threatens her life once again.
There is no quick fix to the flaws in US counterterrorism policy. We might consider drastically scaling back the use of drones to only operations with extremely strong intelligence on high-level al Qaeda or Taliban operatives, or transitioning to a policy of capture rather than targeted killing. We should provide more relevant and sustainable development to impoverished citizens of nations where we’re fighting terror, so that drone strikes are not the only “face of America” in places like Yemen.
One thing is clear: our increasingly broad and sweeping targeted killing program is not working. Experts who study both the short- and long-term impact of drones have found that they breed anti-US sentiment and assist al Qaeda and other terrorist groups in recruiting new members. Drones present a tempting counterterrorism solution that spares us from having to put boots on the ground on the many fronts where we are now fighting terrorism. What we may see as a precise, discreet means of lessening our global military engagement, however, is actually crafting decades of war ahead. If we praise Malala as a hero and role model, we must also listen when she tells us that our drone strikes are contributing to the very forces that attack her and children like her as they try to go to school.