There is a NYT piece about the US’s drone warfare that I feel summarizes the anti-war perspective:
Drone strikes are causing more and more Yemenis to hate America and join radical militants; they are not driven by ideology but rather by a sense of revenge and despair…
Unlike Al Qaeda in Iraq, A.Q.A.P. [Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] has worked on gaining the support of local communities by compromising on some of their strict religious laws and offering basic services, electricity and gas to villagers in the areas they control. Furthermore, Iran has seized this chance to gain more influence among the disgruntled population in Yemen’s south.
Certainly, there may be short-term military gains from killing militant leaders in these strikes, but they are minuscule compared with the long-term damage the drone program is causing. A new generation of leaders is spontaneously emerging in furious retaliation to attacks on their territories and tribes.
This is why A.Q.A.P. is much stronger in Yemen today than it was a few years ago. In 2009, A.Q.A.P. had only a few hundred members and controlled no territory; today it has, along with Ansar al-Sharia, at least 1,000 members and controls substantial amounts of territory.
First off, it’s typical for reporters, in their analysis, to explicitly downplay religion as a motivating factor, even when the facts in their own article belay the truth. The article starts out denying religious motivation, but then cites how negotiation of religious rules has allowed a larger coalition for A.Q.A.P.; or, how an organization whose name translates to “Warriors of Islamic Law” controls substantial territory in Yemen.
Even if we ignore the religious contention, the effects of the drone campaign should be analyzed through the terrorists’ own words. Ustadh Ahmad Farooq, Al Qaeda’s media liason in Pakistan, made a candid admission last year:
“There were many areas where we once had freedom, but now they have been lost. We are the ones that are losing people, we are the ones facing shortages of resources. Our land is shrinking and drones are flying in the sky.”
An anonymous Taliban tactician informed the NYT in 2009 that
“the drones are very effective,” he said, acknowledging that they had thinned the top leadership of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the area. He said 29 of his friends had been killed in the strikes.
You wouldn’t know it from reading these “blowback” articles, but the drone campaign is accurate in targeting Al Qaeda and affiliate members. A New America Foundation study noted that “the nonmilitant fatality rate since 2004 is approximately 25 percent, and in 2010, the figure has been more like 6 percent — an improvement that is likely the result of increased numbers of U.S. spies in Pakistan’s tribal areas, better targeting, more intelligence cooperation with the Pakistani military, and smaller missiles.”
The Long War Journal aggregates statistics on the accuracy of drone strikes in Pakistan:
The killing of any innocent civilian is tragic, but it must be done in order to prevent the deaths of those who would have been victims at the hands of the Taliban, AQAP, Ansar al-Sharia, etc. It must not be forgotten that these terrorist organizations kill innocent civilians en masse, intentionally.
Over 100 people were killed in a recent military parade-bombing carried out by AQAP. In just one example, in the last week Al Qaeda in Iraq continued mass-murder against Shia Muslims on their way to pilgrimage, killing 70 civilians through car-bombs across the country. And, these are only a couple, very recent examples.
If this was all a big tit-for-tat, revenge-based conflict, why wouldn’t America be crushing the terrorists and insurgents when they kill scores of innocent Muslims across the Middle East? Why is it only pointed out when the United States unintentionally causes collateral damage when pursuing mass murderers who hide among civilians like meat shields?
Finally, a few polls seem to indicate that drone campaigns do not, in fact, increase anti-American feelings. Polling of Pakistani sentiment regarding American military action and regarding the Taliban between 2007 and late 2009–a period where drone strike usage massively expanded in Pakistan–shows sentiment against the United States holding exactly steady and favorability of the Taliban decreasing. Opposition to a “peace deal with extremists” rose by 32% during that period!
In the meantime, drone strikes continue to kill the senior leadership of AQAP and send the terrorist organization into retreat across Yemen. Drone strikes are an effective tool. They are not ideal, but neither is reality.