The Real Blowback: Drone Instability

In addition to saying something I’ve said for a while–that our poor education outcomes are a bigger threat to our country than al Qaeda–Stanley McChrystal also had this story to tell at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

“I hope we won’t be a country that uses [drones] to the exclusion of” trained personnel on the ground, he said. He noted the importance of U.S. forces living in foreign countries and learning the local languages. To hit home his point, he described a chilling account of the wrongful execution of a civilan farmer in Afghanistan by a U.S. drone strike. “We fired a missile and killed him and found out he was a farmer,” McChrystal said. After the assassination, McChystal replayed the event to Afghan President Hamid Karzai on a laptop who told McChystal the farmer was engaged in routine irrigation work just prior to the missile strike–an activity the U.S. military should’ve been familiar with. “You have to know these sorts of things,” McChrystal told the crowd. [my emphasis]

On Twitter I joked that assassinating farmers in arid countries who try to irrigate their fields is a plot to sell Monsanto seeds (the guy we killed with Fahd al-Quso was reportedly also a farmer tending his fields); that was, of course, just snark.

But consider what it is: an example of the way that our drone strikes terrorize the kinds of productive activities Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen need to reestablish some kind of stability.

Which brings me to this point from a guest poster at Tom Ricks’ blog: the targeting rules in Afghanistan (the farmer described by McChrystal notwithstanding) are far more strict than they are in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia because our troops are there.

Panelists noted that in Afghanistan, ISAF has been very effective at using drones as part of the larger military campaign. Strict rules govern the use of drones under ISAF command. Under no conditions, for example, are drones used to attack buildings, given the possibility that unidentified civilians may be inside. Such rigidity results not solely from a belief in abiding by the rules of war, but from a conviction that any civilian deaths threaten greater instability. In the hinterlands of Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, where ground troops are unable to help vet potential targets or engage with local populations to redress errors, drones have struck more fear and resentment in local populations than confidence, one panelist concluded. [my emphasis]

The implication is that our troops are there and therefore we have firsthand knowledge, and I’m sure that’s a big part of things (though I suspect one reason McChrystal recognizes the need to improve education is that our troops will only figure out things like local irrigation customs if they’ve got a more sophisticated education than most American high school grads). But I wonder, too, whether having troops stationed locally makes the value of stability more readily apparent to American planners.

It’s always the people on the ground–whether they’re Pakistani, Afghan, Yemeni, or American–who best recognize the value of stability.

With the importance of stability in mind, consider this post from Chris Swift, which purports to refute the “drone blowback fallacy.”

It starts by acknowledging that AQAP has tripled in size since the drone campaign intensified in Yemen and suggests that drone opponents are drawing a direct connection solely between the burgeoning numbers and the drone strikes (as some definitely are).

The ranks of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have tripled to 1,000 in the last three years, and the link between its burgeoning membership, U.S. drone strikes, and local resentment seems obvious.

It then describes a series of interviews that attribute rising AQAP ranks to money and dignity, not revenge over drone killings.

From al Hudaydah in the west to Hadhramaut in the east, AQAP is building complex webs of dependency within Yemen’s rural population. It gives idle teenagers cars, khat, and rifles — the symbols of Yemeni manhood. It pays salaries (up to $400 per month) that lift families out of poverty. It supports weak and marginalized sheikhs by digging wells, distributing patronage to tribesmen, and punishing local criminals. As the leader of one Yemeni tribal confederation told me, “Al Qaeda attracts those who can’t afford to turn away.”

But note the focus of all this (and this is a problem among both drone opponents and boosters). What Swift treats is the increase in domestic recruits to AQAP, not foreign recruits.

As a number of sources have confirmed, the intelligence-created UndieBomb 2.0 notwithstanding, AQAP is increasingly less of a threat to us because it attracts fewer foreign recruits who could target us directly.

In his story describing the lowered standards for drone strikes the other day, Greg Miller described multiple officials admitting that we’re increasing the number of drone strikes in Yemen even though there’s no evidence more people are “migrat[ing]” to join AQAP.

U.S. officials said the pace has accelerated [in the last five months] even though there has not been a proliferation in the number of plots, or evidence of a significantly expanded migration of militants to join AQAP.

That may conflict with John Brennan’s claims that AQAP has tripled in size since the UndieBomber 1.0. It may suggest that that growth all took place before the last year. Or it may suggest–particularly given the use of the word “migration”–that these officials are distinguishing between non-Yemenis and local insurgents allying with AQAP.

Whichever it is, the NCTC just reported, last year attacks from AQAP didn’t go up either–in fact, they went down slightly.

Attacks by AQ and its affiliates increased by 8 percent from 2010 to 2011. A significant increase in attacks by al-Shabaab, from 401 in 2010 to 544 in 2011, offset a sharp decline in attacks by al-Qa‘ida in Iraq (AQI) and a smaller decline in attacks by al-Qa‘ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qa‘ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Everyone but John Brennan–who has a history of lying about drone strikes–seems to be saying that the risk from terrorism, while still real, is going down in Yemen, not up.

And yet, even though AQAP is increasingly a local issue–a fight over who can turn the electricity back on most quickly and provide a livelihood for the poor–we still are increasing our military commitment there.


Saudi interests. The threat AQAP might establish a safe haven in Yemen. Al Qaeda’s aspirations to a caliphate.

A bunch of different things–but they all amount to a local insurgency that we nevertheless claim is a direct threat to us. Which then makes the problem a problem of Yemeni state power.

And therein lies the problem–and the reason why Swift misses where the blowback comes.

In their view, public opposition to drones had little to do with a desire for revenge or increasing sympathy for al Qaeda. Instead, they argued, ordinary Yemenis see the drones as an affront to their national pride. “Drones remind us that we don’t have the ability to solve our problems by ourselves,” one member of the Yemeni Socialist Party said. “If these were Yemeni drones, rather than American drones, there would be no issue at all.”

It never worked when we pretended the drone strikes were Yemen’s. it’s surely not going to work now that some Yemeni officials admit they are ours. But every drone strike is a reminder that the state does not exercise sovereignty over the country–to say nothing of the difficulties drones present to those trying to turn on the electricity.

Therein lies the blowback–and, presumably, the explanation behind the opposition in Pakistan toward both the US and toward Pakistani counterterroism efforts.

We can argue about whether we’ve beaten al Qaeda or not. But if we haven’t, we need to be fighting it as an insurgency. And repeatedly demonstrating the impotence of state government is not a way to beat an insurgency.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

10 replies
  1. scribe says:

    You note:

    “But every drone strike is a reminder that the state does not exercise sovereignty over the country–to say nothing of the difficulties drones present to those trying to turn on the electricity.”

    What we seem to have going on in the hinterlands of those countries where the only US presence is drones raining Hellfire missiles, is the local AQ affiliate acting like the Mafia of the older days. Recall the movie “Goodfellas”, where the Henry Hill character described one of the Mob’s functions as being a place where people who couldn’t go to the cops for justice, could still go to get justice. They sorted things out between characters who couldn’t get them sorted out in the normal system.

    And, in those old mob-ruled neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens and Little Italies all over the country, little old half-crazy Italian ladies dressed in black (the kind who seem to keep shrinking day after day until one day they just pop out of existence) could walk the streets at any hour of the day or night carrying tens of thousands of dollars – their life savings – in a paper bag. And no one bothered them, save perhaps to wish them a good day. The same never could be said for those sections of town governed by the regular government.

    Today, in Yemen and elsewhere, the local AQ affiliate fixes the electricity, gives the young men something more or less productive to do, gets the wells dug, and generally keeps things more or less on an even keel. And, to complete the point you really should have made, EW, every missile raining down not only builds resentment among the locals toward the US, but highlights both the incompetence and illegitimacy of the regular government and, by comparison, the competence and legitimacy of the local AQ affilate.

    Much like in the old story of the Hydra, the USG seems to be creating two new heads every time it cuts one off that monster. Good business, if you’re selling drones and missiles, I guess. If you’re selling effective governance and peace, not so much.

  2. GKJames says:

    Stability as an objective is fine enough. And the notion that air/drone strikes offing farmers jeopardize stability makes obvious sense. But what about the link between LEGITIMACY and stability? Isn’t the elephant in the room our military presence itself, by now a decade stale, far beyond the original and (arguably) legitimate casus belli? We can talk ad nauseam about our noble intentions for the people of Afghanistan, but that’s little more than self-serving palaver about how great we are, how prepared we are for the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of this benighted country. (Not surprisingly, it also is the source of our resentment when Afghans don’t appear sufficiently grateful for our loudly proclaimed selflessness.)

    It’s not just the frequent incompetent and, by way of understatement, callow use of our military power which feeds the resentment and the recruiting. It’s our very military presence which prevents the stability that we insist we’re aiming for.

    Most of our kinetic energy and resources go into force protection. More fundamentally, the Western military presence provides the targets as well as the motive for strange bedfellows to join forces, dynamics that will evaporate once the troops leave Afghanistan. Don’t like pot-shots aimed at your troops? Get ‘em out of there. Once that’s done, the more pertinent policy question comes into sharper view: to what extent does the US want to be the hired assassin in other countries’ tribal/cultural/religious mayhem? Of course, the answer likely would be, To whatever extent the Saudis are willing to pay to ensure Americans’ quiescence, which is effectively guaranteed as long as the consumer culture can be indulged.

  3. MadDog says:

    With the importance of stability in mind, consider this post from Chris Swift, which purports to refute the “drone blowback fallacy.”

    Though the following gets a brief mention from Chris Switt, it seems to be treated in a dismissive fashion almost as an unexplainable random hiccup:

    “…Despite Yemenis’ antipathy toward drones, my conversations also revealed a surprising degree of pragmatism. Those living in active conflict zones drew clear distinctions between earlier U.S. operations, such as the Majala bombing, and more recent strikes on senior al Qaeda figures…”

    So in fact the purported conclusion of Chris Swift’s piece that “strikes in Yemen aren’t pushing people to Al Qaeda” would be false in Chris Swift’s own mind had he interviewed his subjects at an earlier time.

    And one might logically conclude that with the Obama Administration’s approval and introduction now of “signature strikes” into Yemen or as they even more meaningfully and euphemistically call them, “Terrorist Attack Disruption Strikes (TADS)”, Chris Swift’s precious conclusion may again find itself 180 degrees out of whack with reality.

    This sounds a lot like cherry-picking data points to arrive at a preconceived conclusion. Perhaps a US government sponsored and funded conclusion.

  4. emptywheel says:

    @GKJames: Yes.

    Which reflects the underlying reality that the US can’t persuade big parts of the world to buy into its consensus anymore without force, and that means there will always be this tension.

  5. emptywheel says:

    @MadDog: To be fair, he got back in June, so he was there after we embraced signature strikes. But it’s not clear whether he went to the areas where we’ve already “missed” and hit civilians yet. And it’s also not clear whether he also asked about allegations of abuse by the Yemeni army in some of the same cities.

    But that’s happening in a few cities, not in the country as a whole.

  6. Roman Berry says:

    Either reporting is inconsistent on this mistaken strike story McChrystal is telling, or McChrystal is.

    In Wired’s Danger Room, it was an Apache helicopter strike that was similar in description to what is shown in this video. In The Atlantic, it was a drone.

    Guess it doesn’t matter what does the killing. The dead are still dead. The point is that even an Apache with a crew on scene can’t tell farmers from the enemy. It would be impossible to expect drone operators half way around the world reach a better assessment. We’re killing people because we’re looking for people to kill and therefore see people that “need” killing…because that’s what we expect to see. Vicious circle. The only way to stop a vicious circle is to break it. The killing has to stop.

  7. earlofhuntingdon says:

    @emptywheel: “[T]he US can’t persuade big parts of the world to buy into its consensus anymore without force”

    Which is another way of saying there is no consensus, only force. Its use seems to be becoming less effective in forcing submission, whether it is to the forced purchase of Monsanto’s overly-patent protected frankenseeds or the “Washington consensus” matrix of US-controlled debt as a means to control an entire foreign economy and its political elite. That’s likely to mean the US ramps up its use of force until opposition to it at home and abroad encourages a rethinking.

  8. P J Evans says:

    I suspect one reason McChrystal recognizes the need to improve education is that our troops will only figure out things like local irrigation customs if they’ve got a more sophisticated education than most American high school grads

    Maybe the guys in the back ought to find some of the farm kids who are probably out in the front lines, and ask them about irrigation systems and farming.

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