The London Times runs a story claiming that the U.S. drone war in Northwest Pakistan is creating fear and paranoia:
The effects of the campaign, however, are beginning to veer dramatically off course as the strikes intensify, according to tribesmen. “Before the drone attacks began the Taleban weren’t so obvious among us and the militancy wasn’t as strong,” Amir said. “But now every home in North Waziristan seems to have one or two Taleban living in it. The youth are joining them. Feelings against the US and Government are rising because of the attacks. Al-Qaeda has been badly affected by drones — but it has benefited too.”
“One cannot deny the effect of the drones in taking out senior leadership, the militancy’s centre of gravity,” a Pakistani army officer admitted. “It has had a huge impact. But at the same time it has become a huge motivation to fight against the Government and the army because of the perception that it is a breach of sovereignty and is killing civilians. All combined, it creates a very negative impact.”
Well, let’s just color me skeptical that any grassroots opposition to the drone strikes is over sovereignty—even people out in the bush know those things don’t happen without Islamabad’s approval. Rather, the innocent victims of the strikes—even NAF’s well-regarded drone data indicates an appalling amount of collateral damage—and their seeming capriciousness, since no one really knows which agency has what standards for firing a missile, would seem a bigger factor.
But that story gets at a very important point, one I see painfully rarely in the DOD: unintended consequences. In the Times, they mention three major consequences of the drone strikes: post-traumatic stress, revenge “spy” killings by militants, and a diffusion of militants from camps into populated areas (one man says there is one or two Taliban in every house in his village).
Unfortunately, we cannot meaningfully change the stress and paranoia that comes from the strikes—if not drones, then bombs and acid-washed girls. But the other two we should have been able to anticipate, or at least mitigate. It is a standard tactic for many violent resistance movements to behave violently toward those they perceive as collaborators—especially when it’s a fairly simple causal chain between “informing an American” and missiles raining down from the sky. It is inevitable they’ll accuse the wrong person and murder capriciously as a result (and to be fair, the militants do not have a monopoly on collective punishment). Similarly, it would make sense, if we began targeting only large gatherings of militants, that they would stop gathering in large numbers and diffuse—this is almost doctrinaire insurgency.
Now, the discussion over drones and whether they’re an effective tactic or strategy in the GWoT rarely moves beyond theoretical constructs—we have polls of questionable methodology indicating the people in the FATA prefer drones to terrorists (just how does one get a statistically relevant sample there?), and we have Kilcullen and Exum making a mostly theoretical argument against their use (it not only clashes with the previous poll, but their casualty count seems to have been way off). But what of concrete testing?
This is, obviously, pretty difficult. In any complex system you cannot draw simple correlates. But we can speak to high-level leadership as one example. In 2004, Nek Muhammad Wazir has been leading one of Waziristan’s many cyclical insurgencies, when, right when he was sitting down at the negotiating table, a U.S. missile fizzed out of the sky and killed him. Wazir’s successor, Baitullah Mehsud, spent the next five years wreaking absolute havoc in the region—and whenever a cease-fire would be signed, it was rarely the militants who broke but, but America (or Pakistan, operating under pressure from America) trying to lob drone missiles at another figure they were able to identify.
The end result of this incessant drone war against militant leadership is that the leadership itself is far more radical and far less willing to negotiate an end to their insurgency than they were in 2004. While the drones could be called a stunning success in going after al Qaeda, they’ve also been used for years to go after the Pakistani Taliban—and in both cases the men who replaced the dead commanders were more vicious and less amenable to overtures from governments to discuss an end to the violence.
While a (very) brief look at the leadership of these organizations cannot really say much about their success or failure in aggregate, it can highlight some of the second order consequences of a somewhat overly narrow focus on degrading leadership. Successful though it may be—and if NAF is to be believed, then a large majority of drone targets are actual bad guys—the drone war still carries with it serious consequences. Even within the insurgency in Northwest Pakistan, we cannot conclusively say that drones have had a major effect on operations, considering how much worse the area has gotten as strike frequency increased (we cannot draw anything more than a correlation on this front). Al Qaeda’s expeditionary reach may have been curtailed, but it seems to have been at the cost of vast swaths of Pakistan… and even Afghanistan. Have we been shooting ourselves in the foot?