The Truth About Drones

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Failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad says he was driven by anger over dozens of unmanned drone attacks that he witnessed during his most recent five-month visit to his home in Pakistan. That seems a plausible enough motive, particularly since he joins a growing list of homegrown U.S. terror suspects who have cited the escalation of U.S. military operations on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in general, or in the drone attacks in particular. They include U.S. resident Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan immigrant who pleaded guilty in a plot to bomb the New York subway system; Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the U.S.-born army psychiatrist, charged with fatally shooting 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, last year; and the five American Muslims from Virginia, accused of plotting attacks against targets in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

So why isn’t the Obama administration listening? It has so far been unable, or unwilling, to acknowledge the link between the drone attacks and the rising incidence of homegrown terror. Instead, the administration has accused the Pakistani Taliban of directing and probably financing the Times Square plot, even though Shahzad has said he went to the Taliban for help, not the other way around. Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, dismissed the reports that Shahzad was motivated by the drone strikes and, instead, said that the suspect was “captured by the murderous rhetoric of Al Qaeda and TTP that looks at the United States as an enemy.”

The Obama team has its rationale for drone attacks. It stresses that the drone attacks have degraded the capabilities of the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda, without putting U.S. troops in harm’s way on Pakistani soil. What this calculus ignores is the damage drone attacks inflict on America’s reputation in the Muslim world and the “possibilities of blowback,” about which the CIA, which leads the drone war, has rightly warned.

The war on the AfPak border has replaced Iraq as the main source of homegrown radicalization. Qaeda’s effort to find and recruit terrorists has been replaced by a bottom-up flow of volunteers, a flow that is currently very weak, and extremely difficult to track. What these individuals had in common was that they were radicalized online, typically by coverage of the AfPak battles.

The most controversial element of those battles is the use of CIA Predator drones on targets in Pakistan. The CIA currently wages a 24/7 Predator campaign against the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda. In Pakistan, drone attacks are Obama’s weapon of choice. He has expanded the use of drones to include low-level targets, such as foot soldiers. According to an analysis of U.S. government sources, the CIA has killed around 12 times more low-level fighters than mid-to-high-level Qaeda and Taliban leaders since the drone attacks intensified in the summer of 2008.

In the first four months this year, the Predators fired nearly 60 missiles in Pakistan, about the same number as in Afghanistan, the recognized war theater. In Pakistan, the pace of drone strikes has increased to two or three a week, up roughly fourfold from the Bush years. Although drone strikes have killed more than a dozen Qaeda and Taliban leaders, they have incinerated hundreds of civilians, including women and children.

Predator strikes have inflamed anti-American rage among Afghans and Pakistanis, including first or second generation immigrants in the west, as well as elite members of the security services. The Pakistani Taliban and other militants are moving to exploit this anger, vowing to carry out suicide bombings in major U.S. cities. Drone attacks have become a rallying cry for Taliban militants, feeding the flow of volunteers into a small, loose network that is harder to trace even than shadowy Al Qaeda. Jeffrey Addicott, former legal adviser to Army Special Operations, says the strategy is “creating more enemies than we’re killing or capturing.” The Obama administration needs to at least acknowledge the dangers of military escalation and to welcome a real debate about the costs of the drone war. Because clearly, its fallout is reaching home.

Gerges is a professor of Middle Eastern politics and international relations at the London School of Economics, University of London. He is author of Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy.

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