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Drone Blowback: Much Ado about Nothing?

Aqil Shah
Sunday, June 10, 2018, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: One of the most common, and seemingly convincing, critiques of the drone program is that it produces "blowback"—each miss that kills civilians, or even each hit that kills a militant, angers locals near the blast zone and inflames national sentiment against the United States in ways that aid militant recruitment. Such arguments are difficult to evaluate, but Aqil Shah of the University of Oklahoma did extensive survey and interview research on this question.

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Editor’s Note: One of the most common, and seemingly convincing, critiques of the drone program is that it produces "blowback"—each miss that kills civilians, or even each hit that kills a militant, angers locals near the blast zone and inflames national sentiment against the United States in ways that aid militant recruitment. Such arguments are difficult to evaluate, but Aqil Shah of the University of Oklahoma did extensive survey and interview research on this question. He argues that support for the Taliban and other groups is not a result of drones but rather a host of other grievances, most of which concern the Pakistani state.


Targeted killings of suspected Islamist militants by armed drones have become the mainstay of U.S. counterterrorism campaigns in non-traditional conflicts in countries like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Analysts, human rights organizations, and former U.S. officials claim that drone strikes produce blowback: Rather than reducing the terrorist threat, drone strikes increase it by providing terrorist groups with fresh recruits. According to two prominent experts, David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum, “every one of these dead noncombatants [in Pakistan] represents an alienated family, a new desire for revenge, and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially even as drone strikes have increased.”

Although intuitive, the blowback argument lacks empirical support. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has launched an estimated 430 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004 (roughly 75 percent of its known total strikes worldwide). My research there shows that drone blowback may be much ado about nothing. Drawing on interviews with 167 well-informed adults from North Waziristan Agency (NWA), the most heavily targeted district in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), extensive interviews with respected experts on terrorism, and an official Pakistani police survey of 500 detained terrorists from southern Sindh Province, I find no evidence of a direct link between drones strikes and radicalization or the recruitment of militants, either locally or nationally. Instead, my data and secondary sources suggest that militant recruitment is a complex process driven by a variety of factors, such as political grievances, state sponsorship of militancy as a tool of foreign policy, state repression, weak governance, and coercive recruitment by militant groups—not drone strikes.

At the local level, finding evidence of blowback from well-informed locals should be relatively easy given the dense social and kinship ties of NWA inhabitants. Virtually every family in NWA has been affected by the conflict, whether through the death of a relative, the destruction of property, or displacement resulting from a military offensive. Yet these people have largely been left out of debates about the threats they face and the effect these threats have on their lives. Moreover, the inhabitants of FATA identify themselves as members of a particular Pashtun qabail or qaum (tribe) divided into khels (sub-tribes), each of which consists of extended clans or families. Inhabitants are therefore enmeshed in dense social networks, which makes them uniquely informed about the effects of drone strikes on their community. Most respondents claimed to personally know or be aware of someone in their clan or village who had been involved in militant activity or who had been indirectly linked to militants, but none believed that the reason was the loss of a relative in a drone strike. As one tribal elder from Dande Darpa Khel in Miranshah, the drone-targeted headquarters of the Haqqani Network, explained: “We hear rumors that this or that man joined the Taliban or al-Qaeda because of anger over drone strikes. It is possible. But I know almost every family in my area, and I do not know of a case where a local man or boy joined the Taliban as direct result of death or injury to a close relative in a drone strike. In fact, most of the Taliban fighters were already radicalized, or inclined toward militancy for various reasons, or forced to join these groups.” Comments like this came up frequently in my sample. Even local leaders of Islamist and other right-wing parties acknowledged that the ability of drone strikes to spawn militants is exaggerated.

The views of this informed group of NWA residents rest on pragmatic calculations. Most were resentful of the coercive tactics the Taliban used to terrorize and control the local population, especially after the Pakistani military struck a peace deal with them in September 2006. Taliban tactics included taxation and harsh penalties for minor offenses. Local resentment is also rooted in state repression. Until recently, FATA was governed under the colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulation (enacted under British rule in 1901), which prescribes harsh penalties for crimes without the right of appeal in a court of law, including collective responsibility for offenses committed by one or more members of a tribe or those committed by anyone in its area. During its operations, the Pakistani military has used collective punishments, including economic blockades, to punish families or clans whose members they suspected of harboring foreign militants. The state’s application of these draconian and often indiscriminate measures against the local population, and its appeasement of militants through peace agreements, has only compounded local alienation stemming from counterinsurgency operations that, some studies show, benefit insurgents. But in North Waziristan, many locals are alienated from both the Pakistani state and the militants.

Some proponents of the blowback thesis also claim national-level effects: Drone strikes, they argue, impinge on a country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, enraging a broad swathe of its population and providing anti-U.S. militant groups with a sizable reservoir of sympathizers and potential recruits. Civilian deaths in such strikes amplify the blowback effect. According to the Stimson Center’s Task Force on U.S. Drone Policy, “Even where strikes kill only legitimate targets, the perceived insult to sovereignty—in places like Pakistan and Yemen—sparks bitterness, feelings of nationalism…hostile to the U.S.” In addition, the task force reports that “civilian casualties, even if relatively few, can anger whole communities, increase anti-U.S. sentiment and become a potent recruiting tool for terrorist organizations.” The Pakistani opposition leader and former cricketer Imran Khan, who revived his dormant political career in part by loudly criticizing the U.S. drone campaign, has claimed that drone strikes carried out in Pakistan kill many civilians and “are turning young men into angry jihadis.”

My interviews with terrorism experts and counterterrorism officials from Punjab and Sindh provinces and the findings of the Sindh Counterterrorism Department’s (CTD’s) 2017 survey of 500 detained terrorists show that this is not the case. Tariq Parvez, founding coordinator of Pakistan’s National Counterterrorism Authority, argues that organizations with a clear anti-U.S. narrative, such as al-Qaeda, can exploit drone strikes for propaganda purposes, but that “drones are a distant threat for people in Punjab or Sindh, for which you can express indignation but not be really be threatened or motivated by it to become militants.” According to Ahmed Rashid, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Taliban and terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, “There is no evidence to show that Punjabi or other terrorist groups in Pakistan use drone strikes as an important recruitment tool or that these attacks create terrorists en masse.”

Amongst the counterterrorism officials I interviewed, there was consensus that drone strikes in FATA were not a crucial factor in militant recruitment at the national level. Senior Superintendent of Police Sohail Habib Tajik, who was the additional director of the Federal Investigation Agency’s Counterterrorism Wing from 2008 to 2010, when the U.S. drone campaign was as it peak, stated: “Drone strikes did not generate militancy, militancy generated drone strikes.” Fourteen of the sixteen officers I interviewed shared his assessment that the causal arrow points in the opposite direction. The CTD survey shows that the main motivations for joining terrorist groups in Sindh Province are economic and religious/sectarian, rather than anti-Americanism generally or opposition to U.S. drone strikes specifically. When asked “Why did you start thinking that violence in the name of Islam was justified?”, a plurality of the respondents cited perceived Western opposition to Islam as a motivating grievance (41.4 percent); other grievances cited were a perceived lack of justice in society (19.4 percent), personal experiences (19.8 percent), and other (19.4 percent). But in response to the most important question, “What ultimately drew you to join a terrorist/banned outfit?”, 41 percent cited unemployment or economic concerns, 40 percent religious concerns, and 16 percent psychological issues. According to a CTD official with 12 years of experience, “The drone issue is highly overrated as a motivation for militancy. In my experience in police and counterterrorism work, I have seen no evidence of drone-driven militants in Sindh Province.”

Some of those who support terrorist groups or become terrorists themselves may be motivated by the desire to seek revenge for their family members or by broader sentiments of nationalism. But there is little or no evidence to support the simplistic claim of the blowback thesis, either in the directly targeted district of NWA or the two largest provinces of Pakistan. Simply put, the complex processes of radicalization and joining militant groups cannot be reduced to drone strikes. While drone strikes have provided the United States a degree of success in eliminating terrorist leaders and operatives in semi-permissive conflict environments like Pakistan, more effective counterterrorism policies would require taking into account other variables, such as state policies that directly sponsor terror and/or provide the environment conducive for breeding terrorism. Not to mention that the use of drone strikes is fraught with ethical and moral concerns. President Donald Trump’s reported decision to expand the powers of the CIA for carrying out drone strikes and to relax Obama-era restrictions on counterterrorism operations by both the CIA and the military is likely to increase the risk of civilian casualties in conflict zones. Beyond the obvious need for transparency and accountability when conducting drone strikes and counterterrorism operations, the United States should do its utmost to protect civilians from harm in accordance with international legal and normative standards.

Aqil Shah is Wick Cary Assistant Professor of South Asian Politics in the David L. Boren College of International Studies at the University of Oklahoma and a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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