How Drones Create More Terrorists

Militants take advantage of fearful communities to draw new recruits.
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Drone strikes may create more jihadi militants. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters)

Recently, strong evidence has begun to suggest that terrorists use drone strikes as a recruitment tool. Of course, the value of drones in the arena of intelligence-gathering and secret surveillance of foes (and even friends) is unmistakable. In warzones too, it can support ground operations in significant and even decisive ways. None of this is controversial, though the ones on the receiving end will certainly not like it. What is debatable is its use as a counter-terrorism instrument in theaters that are not declared war zones, or in cases where a sovereign state is not fully and publicly on board with this policy. Lack of transparency in regulations that govern this new type of warfare, the unverifiable nature of targets, and questions over the credibility of intelligence only complicates the matter.

Mark Bowden's important contribution to the drone debate raises critical questions that policy makers will be wise to consider for the future use of this new tool of war. One of the important arguments mentioned in the piece revolves around the notion that drone strikes might be less provocative than ground assaults for terrorists, meaning that standard warfare might create more terrorists than drones do. Lets first accept what is obvious: more civilians are killed in standard warfare, and the history of warfare in the 20th century sufficiently proves the point. When it comes to drones strikes, the ratio of civilian deaths is certainly lower, but the issue is not about the number of civilian casualties alone. The inherently secret nature of the weapon creates a persistent feeling of fear in the areas where drones hover in the sky, and the hopelessness of communities that are on the receiving end of strikes causes severe backlash -- both in terms of anti-U.S. opinion and violence.

Response to drone strikes comes in many varieties. First, revenge is targeted at those within the easy range of the insurgents and militants. The victims of those revenge terrorist attacks also consider the drone strikes responsible for all the mayhem. Consequently, terrorists and ordinary people are drawn closer to each other out of sympathy, whereas a critical function of any successful counter-terrorism policy is to win over public confidence so that they join in the campaign against the perpetrators of terror. Poor public awareness -- which is often a function of inadequate education -- about terrorist organizations indeed plays a role in building this perspective. Public outrage against drone strikes circuitously empowers terrorists. It allows them space to survive, move around, and maneuver. Pakistan is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

Many in Pakistan now believe that drone strikes tend to motivate Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban to conduct terrorist attacks that target Pakistan's security forces as well as civilians. The duplicity of Pakistan's political and military elite in giving a green light to the U.S. drone policy proved to be counterproductive. The sponsors and supporters of drone strikes in U.S. policy circles apparently ignored the wider socio-political impact and indirect costs when evaluating its efficacy.

Supporters of drone strikes are only grudgingly acknowledging now that affiliates of Al-Qaeda are alive and kicking in various parts of the world, even though its founder is dead and its top layer of leadership is disabled and dysfunctional. Drone strikes that specifically target hardcore terrorists can work effectively provided they are supported by a parallel public relations endeavor that challenges the ideas projected by those terrorists.

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Terrorists and their misguided sympathizers often expose and market civilian casualties -- particularly women and children -- quite effectively. Meanwhile, those who direct and authorize these strikes rarely provide any justification and rationale for it. This is simply seen as arrogance by those whom the U.S. expects to be on their side in this battle.

The crux of my viewpoint is that drone attacks cannot be compared to "boots on ground" operations. They are two different methods of battling enemies. Wars are mainly about national interests -- resources, territory, the balance of power, and religion. Drone strikes directed at terrorists perform a comparable but different role. In battling terrorism, physical elimination of the enemy matters but is not decisive. Hitting at the mindset of the terrorist and discrediting the ideas that generate terrorism is the big prize. A law enforcement action that flows out of a "rule of law" paradigm, involving meticulous investigations and prosecution in courts, is likely to be far more damaging for the ideas that terrorists stand for. Limited and internationally regulated use of drones targeting the most wanted terrorists can be a part of this comprehensive approach -- it may take longer to deliver, but it will be more sustainable and the results will be more durable.

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Hassan Abbas is a senior advisor at Asia Society and the author of the forthcoming book The Taliban Revival.

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