If there's any debate right now in the major U.S. media regarding blowing people up with missiles from drones, it's about "transparency" (official reporting on who's killed) or death counts of those people somehow identified as civilians. But unless drones are just a means of vicariously venting rage, or of profiting drone manufacturers, they are -- like the wider wars they are part of -- supposed to serve some purpose.
Although terrorism keeps increasing during the Overseas Contingency Operations Formerly Known as the Global War on Terrorism, in theory the war making is supposed to (1) not be terrorism itself, and (2) reduce terrorism or end it. While I think a strong case can be made that neither of those conditions has been or ever could be met, and that even as mass therapy or economic catalyst the whole thing is doomed to failure, the drones are the piece of it that has begun to be recognized as counterproductive.
In a master's thesis from a student at Georgetown University, summarized in a recent article, Emily Manna took data on terrorism in Pakistan between 2006 and 2012 from the Global Terrorism Database and data on drone strikes where it was corroborated by both the New America Foundation and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Manna found that after the United States begins attacking a province with drones, terrorism increases there.
Three years ago, a young man from Yemen whose village had been attacked by a U.S. drone the week before, testified before Congress. Farea Al-muslimi said that, as with many known drone strikes, the supposed target was a well-known man who could very easily have been arrested. Al-muslimi said that when his neighbors think of America, they think of "the terror they feel from the drones that hover over their heads ready to fire missiles at any time. What violent militants had previously failed to achieve, one drone strike accomplished in an instant. There is now an intense anger against America."
President Barack Obama used to hold up Yemen as the example of a successful drone war. That was before the drone strikes contributed to creating a wider war, and before the wider war waged by Saudi Arabia and the United States further strengthened al Qaeda in Yemen.
The Chicot report recently highlighted the fact that Prime Minister Tony Blair was warned before the attack on Iraq that it would increase terrorism and could result, as it did, in something like ISIS. The U.S. government had the same understanding as well, and also had the same expectation of likely chaos for Syria if its government were overthrown, before beginning to work for that overthrow. Later Obama asked the CIA for a report on whether arming proxies had ever worked. The closest the CIA could come to a successful case was 1980s Afghanistan. Need I spell out what that created? (Yes, Obama proceeded to arm proxies in Syria anyway.)
A CIA report warns that drone strikes can increase terrorism:
"The potential negative effects . . . include increasing the level of insurgent support ["], strengthening an armed group's bonds with the population, radicalizing an insurgent group's remaining leaders, creating a vacuum into which more radical groups can enter."
Former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Anne Paterson's cables published by WikiLeaks stated that drone strikes "risk destabilizing the Pakistani state, alienating both the civilian government and military leadership, and provoking a broader governance crisis in Pakistan without finally achieving the goal."
According to Mark Mazzetti, "The CIA station chief in Islamabad thought the drone strikes in 2005 and 2006 -- which, while infrequent at that time, were often based on bad intelligence and had resulted in many civilian casualties -- had done little except fuel hatred for the United States inside Pakistan and put Pakistani officials in the uncomfortable position of having to lie about the strikes."
Former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair said that while "drone attacks did help reduce the Qaeda leadership in Pakistan, they also increased hatred of America."
Another Obama advisor, Michael Boyle, said drone strikes have "adverse strategic effects that have not been properly weighed against the tactical gains associated with killing terrorists " The vast increase in the number of deaths of low-ranking operatives has deepened political resistance to the U.S. program in Pakistan, Yemen and other countries."
Yet another, Gen. James E. Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, according to the New York Times, that "America's aggressive campaign of drone strikes could be undermining long-term efforts to battle extremism. 'We're seeing that blowback. If you're trying to kill your way to a solution, no matter how precise you are, you're going to upset people even if they're not targeted.'"
Micah Zenko at the Council on Foreign Relations has found that "There appears to be a strong correlation in Yemen between increased targeted killings since December 2009 and heightened anger toward the United States and sympathy with or allegiance to AQAP ... One former senior military official closely involved in U.S. targeted killings argued that 'drone strikes are just a signal of arrogance that will boomerang against America ... A world characterized by the proliferation of armed drones ... would undermine core U.S. interests, such as preventing armed conflict, promoting human rights, and strengthening international legal regimes.' Because of drones' inherent advantages over other weapons platforms, states and nonstate actors would be much more likely to use lethal force against the United States and its allies."
Robert Grenier, who was Director of the CIA's Counter-Terrorism Center from 2004 to 2006, has asked: "How many Yemenis may be moved in future to violent extremism in reaction to carelessly targeted missile strikes, and how many Yemeni militants with strictly local agendas will become dedicated enemies of the West in response to U.S. military actions against them?"