On Drones, Part 3: The “Drone Blowback Fallacy”

Christopher Swift wrote a brilliant piece on what he called the “drone blowback fallacy.” I mentioned it at the end of my last article, and I highly recommend you read it. His argument, boiled down to its most basic elements is this:

  1. Drone strikes are hurting Al Qaeda more than they are helping it.
  2. Al Qaeda’s numbers are growing not because of “drone blowback” but because people are poor. Joining Al Qaeda (like joining gangs in poor neighborhoods in U.S. cities) offers some financial stability for a population that has few other opportunities.
  3. As long as civilians aren’t getting killed, Yemenis can live with the drones, albeit begrudgingly.
  4. The biggest problem with the drones to the average Yemeni is that they are American drones. This pricks the Yemeni national pride.

He concludes:

Despite deeper engagement and closer coordination, Americans and Yemenis are fighting the same war from different premises. The United States emphasizes radical ideology. Yemen emphasizes endemic poverty. Washington wants immediate results. Sana’a needs long-term development. Americans fear foreign attacks on their national security. Yemenis resent foreign affronts to their national pride. Washington’s drone dramas are just one example of this self-defeating disconnect. The more policymakers read their domestic debates into Yemeni politics, the less they will appreciate vital voices from the field.

I recognize that Swift’s article, at least on the face of it, contradicts the last article I wrote. But I think Swift’s thoughts are a very important part of this discussion—they add detail and nuance to an otherwise hopelessly two-lobed discussion.

In the end, though he contradicts the most basic idea concerning “drone blowback,” his conclusion is remarkably similar to the practical advice given by non-interventionists. His article indicates that Al Qaeda’s quantitative growth is now largely dependent on its ability to pay people. And apparently, Al Qaeda’s fund revenues are getting extremely low. This means they will have to rely more and more on illegal trafficking to raise funds (which is not working as well for them as it is for the Taliban), and as their funds decrease, they will depend more and more on ideologically driven recruits.

This means that every civilian death by a drone strike will become ever more necessary for Al Qaeda’s survival. As Swift concedes, drone strike mistakes do contribute locally to the development of Al Qaeda. And these kind of recruits will keep fighting even when the money runs out. These are really the most dangerous members of Al Qaeda—the true believers in the cause.

The biggest problem with Swift’s analysis is that he focuses on the quantity of recruits rather than the quality. Hessian foot soldiers, the ones who do it only for the money, are traditionally very fickle to their adopted cause. These aren’t the suicide-bombing fanatics that really pose a threat to our domestic security. So drone strikes may not be driving the quantitative growth on the Al Qaeda payroll, but they are certainly producing the more dangerous jihadist radicals.

Which means that most of the “terrorists” we are currently hunting down because of their involvement with Al Qaeda would gladly switch sides if economic opportunities were available to them. As Swift said, terrorist groups are not as ideologically or religiously monolithic as we tend to think. So, even based on Swift’s analysis, it is time to transfer our efforts away from drones. We need to develop long-term strategies for international interaction.

And as I said in the last article, this boils down to exercising the Golden Rule in foreign affairs. Perhaps it would be better to help Yemen take care of its own domestic imbroglio by paying for Yemeni drones, if drones are in fact going to continue flying in the Middle Eastern sky. The best option would probably be to partner with Yemen in trade and do everything we can to promote prosperity there. That would at least remove the majority of money-driven recruits. By removing the money incentive, we could be sure that Al Qaeda would have only ideological recruits in its ranks. That would make this situation a whole lot less complicated. For everyone.

And aside from pragmatic concerns—which is really what the whole argument about “blowback” boils down to—we need to determine if what we are doing in other countries is right. It doesn’t really matter if it’s working (or not working, for that matter) in the eyes of one specialist or another. If we base our foreign and domestic policies on such pragmatic concerns, we will always be chasing our moral tail. And we will become unwitting tools in the hands of injustice.

The question I want to leave with you is simple: Are drone strikes on civilian targets—whether or not they are suspected domestic or international criminals—right? Drone strikes militate against the most basic principle of freedom and justice: that you are innocent until proven guilty. If it is right to use drones to kill civilian targets without a trial and without charges, then we can just do away with the legislative and judicial branches altogether, and just crown Obama king. And this is beyond stupid—it is immoral.