I have written about the drone war a number of times. My views on this matter, which have brought me disagreement and frustration from some of my fellow SIN bloggers, are quite explicit. I am not content with this war, and I wish that I can be stopped through agreements between US and nations where Islamist militant groups are active. And this cannot happen soon enough. In the meantime, though, aside from the issue of unintended casualties, for which I blame the extremists as well as the US military, I consider this war to be both moral and legal. Hence, I won’t reopen that subject here.
But the one point that still needs to be addressed is the argument that the drone strikes will backfire by helping the extremist groups recruit. As the argument goes, family member of those killed or injured in the attacks will join the extremists, and make up for any lost members due to the strikes, because now they have a new grievance against the US. This objection has also been brought up recently in the literature by journalists and authors.
My first counterargument to this claim is that, while it may be true that new people join extremist groups as a result of the drone war, terrorist recruitment is a complex phenomenon, and it is very hard to tell how much of their recruitment success may be attributable to US actions. Look at Iraq, for example. Death tolls in that country are still extremely high (and sadly are reaching levels comparable to 2005-2006) even though there are no more US troops there. While some have attributed the violence in that country to the persistence of a US embassy, the reality is that ethno-religious divides in Iraq are extremely deep, and that prime minister Al-Malaki, a Shiite, won’t stop harassing minority Sunnis and treating them like second-class citizens. And this is a dream recruitment opportunity for Al-Qaeda, having nothing to do with drones.
The second counterargument against the “drones help recruitment” claim is that bringing in new members is not the only thing extremists have to do. Before new members are useful to them, they need to be trained and equipped. And let’s not forget what happened when they had a free hand to do so.
At this time, however, evidence clearly suggests that drone strikes have disrupted their training efforts and other logistical activities, and made the planning of their attacks a lot harder. It is very hard to argue, under the circumstances, that having new, untrained members somehow benefits these groups, as they keep losing more experienced members and their logistical infrastructure.
Hence, those who argue that the drone war needs to end because it helps the militants’ recruitment effort need to answer two questions. How do they know how much of extremist recruitment is due to the drone war, despite all the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Somalia, etc. in which the US is not involved, or got involved only after the fact? And how can they tell us that we should be worried about terrorist recruitment, while we haven’t forgotten the consequences of their having a free hand to train, and those look a lot scarier?
The Pakistani military also has spoken about the drone war casualties in that country. As it happens, despite claims by some on the political left in the US that many of the casualties are civilians and that this helps extremist recruiting, few of the casualties are civilians; according to the Pakistanis at least, the majority are hard core militants, including many third-country nationals, whose presence on Pakistani soil has no explanation other than jihadi activities, and whose death are not likely to bring many to the extremist fold who weren’t there already:
General Officer Commanding 7-Division Maj-Gen Ghayur Mehmood said in a briefing here: “Myths and rumours about US predator strikes and the casualty figures are many, but it’s a reality that many of those being killed in these strikes are hardcore elements, a sizeable number of them foreigners.
“Yes there are a few civilian casualties in such precision strikes, but a majority of those eliminated are terrorists, including foreign terrorist elements.”
The Military’s 7-Dvision’s official paper on the attacks till Monday said that between 2007 and 2011 about 164 predator strikes had been carried out and over 964 terrorists had been killed.
Of those killed, 793 were locals and 171 foreigners, including Arabs, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Chechens, Filipinos and Moroccans.
And he also said this:
Maj-Gen Ghayur, who is in-charge of troops in North Waziristan, admitted that the drone attacks had negative fallout, scaring the local population and causing their migration to other places.
Sad and real, but why aren’t the militants blamed for this? They are the ones turning the living area of local population into training camps and hiding behind civilians.