Drone Strikes: Misunderstanding Asymmetry

I guess the moment of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on drones when I got really frustrated was when Retired Colonel Martha McSally said we didn’t need any special rules for drones (which she tried to insist be called Remotely Piloted Aircraft; though she admitted the military has used two different acronyms incorporating “unmanned,” she suggested it amounts to an Al Qaeda PsyOp to call drones drones because that implies they’re unmanned). In particular, we didn’t have to think specially about the asymmetric advantage drones give us.

McSally: [drones] are an asymmetrical advantage we have. It’s okay to use our asymmetrical advantage. Rules should not be different.

Don’t get me wrong. If the issue is about winning an all out battle for the physical survival of the US, I can see using America’s asymmetrical advantage.

But McSally was sitting four seats away from Farea al-Muslimi, who had just described how his Yemeni village of Wessab had responded when Hameed Al-Radmi was droned to death in his home village less than a week ago.

Just six days ago, this so-called war came straight to my village. As I was thinking about my testimony and preparing to travel to the United States to participate in this hearing, I learned that a missile from a U.S. drone had struck the village where I was raised. Ironically, I was sitting with a group of American diplomats in Sana’a at a farewell dinner for a dear American friend when the strike happened. As I was leaving my American friends, both of my mobile phones began to receive a storm of text messages and calls.

For almost all of the people in Wessab, I’m the only person with any connection to the United States. They called and texted me that night with questions that I could not answer: Why was the United States terrifying them with these drones? Why was the United States trying to kill a person with a missile when everyone knows where he is and he could have been easily arrested?


After the strike, the farmers in Wessab were afraid and angry. They were upset because they know Al-Radmi but they did not know that he was a target, so they could have potentially been with him during the missile strike. Some of the people that were with Al-Radmi when he was killed were never affiliated with AQAP and only knew Al-Radmi socially. The farmers in my village were angry because Al-Radmi was a man with whom government security chiefs had a close connection. He received cooperation from and had an excellent relationship with the government agencies in the village. This made him look legitimate and granted him power in the eyes of those poor farmers, who had no idea that being with him meant they were risking death from a U.S. drone.


In the past, most of Wessab’s villagers knew little about the United States. My stories about my experiences in America, my American friends, and the American values that I saw for myself helped the villagers I talked to understand the America that I know and love. Now, however, when they think of America they think of the terror they feel from the drones that hover over their heads ready to fire missiles at any time.

It’s not that I question McSally’s uber-competence; her competence and intelligence were clear from her testimony.

It’s just that she — and Lindsey Graham, who had a gleam on his face as he said something virtually identical about asymmetry — seems to misunderstand the relationship here. Indeed, Lindsey even dismissed al-Muslimi’s testimony by suggesting that, after invoking a visit to Yemen, he knew that Pakistan and Yemen’s governments were unreliable counterterrorism partners and therefore we had to use drone strikes.

But that all forgets that we’re trying to do two things: neutralize the few terrorists who are legitimately targeting the United Staes in Pakistan and Yemen, and convincing Yemenis and Pakistanis and others not only that their government better represents their interests than al Qaeda, but that we have their best interests in mind, too.

And yet neither McSally nor Lindsey seemed to get that using asymmetric weapons against  Hameed Al-Radmi also communicated to the villagers of Wessab that we felt entitled to use asymmetric weapons against them, too.

So  here we had a young man who we’ve invested a lot of energy and money into preparing to be an American-friendly leader going forward, testifying before the Senate, and two of the participants in that hearing responded to a story (really, multiple stories) about how drones impact on completely innocent people we’re trying to persuade by boasting that we prefer to use these drone strikes because no one in his country can do anything about them.

I don’t think you can separate this — the gleeful use of asymmetry against those we’re trying to kill from the impact that asymmetry has on those we’re trying to persuade.

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.

17 replies
  1. bell says:

    an unwillingness to empathize with those who live in a very different culture appears to result in a failure, unwillingness or inability to understand what this ongoing drone program is reaping. george orwell it with a different name all you want mcsally and graham.. it doesn’t change the sense that alienation and hostility towards the usa will be an obvious byproduct, let alone the likelihood of a desire to offer a similar sense of terror to the host who continues to live by this type of sword.

  2. stryder says:

    While on a recon in vietnam in 1969 my platoon and i came into a small village.My scout had noticed an old farmer near a rice paddy with his water buffalo and went over to talk to him and i went with him.We sat and they talked about the situation in the village. The farmer said that the VC had just raided the village and took all the young males over 12 and also all the rice they had stored for the winter.It was obvious the villagers were caught in the middle and had to cooperate with the VC and with us. We sat quietly for a while and i asked my scout to ask the farmer what he thought about the Americans.
    The farmer smiled and said “what difference does it make,your all the same to me.Someday you’ll all be gone and i can take care of my rice field in peace “

  3. What Constitution? says:

    This point emphasizes what I think is the most salient point about these drones and our use of them: these are not weapons of war, they are tools of imperial domination. Period. These are not reasonably or reliably employed in regions/countries where there is a government with a military that is capable or willing to prevent their use. We don’t have drones in France, we don’t use drones in this fashion in Iran — they’d shoot them down. We use them in Pakistan and Afghanistan and Yemen because either (1) their military/government is powerless to stop us because we have occupied their territories, or (2) we have made deals with their governments to allow our use in exchange for, well, payment or for use of our drones for their internal purposes (confirmed in spades recently).

    These aren’t “asymmetrical”, they are unilateral. And it’s one of the many reasons why drone usage in the US itself is both problematic and probable. The fact is, the controlling entity — invader, occupier, government — can marshal this tool over a populace unable militarily to resist, and cannot where competent military resistance is to be expected. That makes them tools not of military engagement, but of population suppression and political repression.

    We’re not fighting a “war” in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. We are singling out individualized perceived “troublemakers” for execution. The fact this isn’t a “war” in a constitutional sense is secondary to the reality of the conflict/pacification actions rendered convenient by drones in controlled airspace.

  4. shekissesfrogs says:

    She is wrong, and the dismissal of human casualties by Graham and her was grotesque.

    I was led to believe that Laws of War don’t allow the transfer of risk from soldiers to civilians. They are using WMD in civilian areas to wipe out one ‘suspect’. More eyes at 50,000 ft. was a dumb argument, when its common knowledge they have none at sea level.
    It’s disappointing how little the senators knew and how unprepared they were to ask good questions, and I’m a casual follower of the subject.

  5. lefty665 says:

    al-Muslimi: “The drone strike and its impact tore my heart, much as the tragic bombings in Boston last week tore your hearts and also mine.”


    “It is the worst feeling I have ever had. I was devastated for days because I knew that the bombing in my village by the United States would empower militants.”

  6. Michael Murry says:

    Ah, yes. Asymmetric weaponry. Its much-heralded advantages worked so well for the United States in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In truth, as the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton has noted, the United States has long found itself in the strange situation “of being able to annihilate but not defeat a tiny enemy.”

    U. S. drones can annihilate impoverished foreigners and blow up their cars, houses, weddings and funerals. It just can’t defeat them.

    So does someone want to come again with how all this losing to virtual nobodies provides evidence of U.S. military “competence”? I claim that the obvious and ubiquitous evidence points in precisely the opposite direction.

  7. harpie says:

    It’s not a drone. It’s a “multi piloted aircraft”.-McSally

    There! Don’t ya’ll feel better already?

  8. harpie says:

    @harpie: And as for the meme that “this war is not your father’s war” because the terrists don’t wear uniforms and hide among the civilian population…

    what about considering that the alleged “enemy” is “not your father’s enemy”, because:

    No battalions of fighters, no ranks of tanks, no squadrons of bombers, no fleets of warships.

  9. Bardi says:

    @harpie: So says the “Closet Case”™ who had to pull strings to get himself into the military and make Colonel in less than six years.

  10. P J Evans says:

    I get the impression that McSally and Graham think of this as more like a video game than as an actual messy war.

  11. greengiant says:

    Are McSally and Graham human rights criminals? The same as the rest of the drone industrial complex. Bought, paid for and delivered.

  12. harpie says:

    The following is from Farea Al-Muslimi’s written testimony [pdf]:

    […] For me personally, it is deeply troubling, astonishing, and challenging to reconcile that the very same hand that taught me English, awarded me scholarships, and dramatically improved my life is the hand that droned my village, terrified my people, and now makes it harder for them to believe the good things that I tell them about America and my American friends. It is especially frustrating to me because all the United States needed to do was identify Al Radmi as a target, so that he could’ve been arrested without the injuries, destruction, and death caused by the drone strike. […]

    This is how Senator Lindsay Graham [R-SC] spoke to this young man:

    LG: […] Mr Mus…what’s you’re name again, sir? I don’t wanna’ mispronounce your name.

    Farea Al-Muslimi [FM]: Muslimi

    LG: [1:54:02] OK. I been to Yemen. It’s a country in great turmoil. Do you agree with that?

    FM: A country of..?

    LG: Great turmoil, great conflict.

    FM: It definitely has a lot of problems.

    LG: OK. And I understand that. Mr. Bergen, would you have advised President Obama to call the Pakistan government up to go arrest Bin Laden?

    PB: Well, it was discussed and it was rejected.

    LG: Can you imagine what would have happened if it came out into public that we told the Pakistan government “Bin Laden’s over here. Go get him” and he got away? My party would have eaten President Obama alive. And the reason President Obama didn’t do that, in all candor, is you can’t trust the Pakistan government to go pick up bin Laden. [speaking to FM]: In all due deference to your country, there are places in your country I wouldn’t tell anybody about what we’re up to because, I think the person that we’re tryin to capture or kill would wind up knowing about it. You’re point is “Why don’t we arrest the guy in the village?” Nothing would please me more than to be able to arrest somebody, to interrogate them, but the world in which we live in is that if we share this closely held information, Col McSally, you’re gonna wind up tipping off the people we’re tryin to go after. Do you agree with that?

    Colonel Martha McSally [CM]: In some cases, absolutely, sir. […]

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