Follow-up to Drones and Anti-Americanism

Foreign Affairs is currently carrying a piece by Christopher Swift entitled “The Drone Blowback Fallacy.” In it, Swift uses evidence gathered from his 40 interviews with “tribal leaders, Islamist politicians, Salafist clerics, and other sources” in Yemen to conclude

As much as al Qaeda might play up civilian casualties and U.S. intervention in its recruiting videos, the Yemeni tribal leaders I spoke to reported that the factors driving young men into the insurgency are overwhelmingly economic… to my astonishment, none of the individuals I interviewed drew a causal relationship between U.S. drone strikes and al Qaeda recruiting. Indeed, of the 40 men in this cohort, only five believed that U.S. drone strikes were helping al Qaeda more than they were hurting it. . . . .

He adds:

Ordinary Yemenis see the drones as an affront to their national pride. “Drones remind us that we don’t have the ability to solve our problems by ourselves,” one member of the Yemeni Socialist Party said. “If these were Yemeni drones, rather than American drones, there would be no issue at all.”

Information from 40 interviews certainly isn’t enough to draw any real conclusions about the causal relationship between drone strikes and militancy, particularly as there is likely to have been both selection and social desirability bias. Nonetheless, the evidence from which Swift draws supports some of the anecdotal evidence outlined in my previous post. I also agree that national pride is a significant factor in analyzing how people respond to the drones.

Swift ends his piece with two “lessons”:

First, as long as drones target legitimate terrorists, Yemenis begrudgingly acknowledge their utility. And second, the more Yemenis perceive the United States as a serious partner, the less drones will pique their national pride.

It would be interesting to see how the situation develops in Yemen, and it would be entirely too simple to think that the lessons learned (not yet learned?) in Pakistan should apply in another country. Still, I disagree with both of Swift’s conclusions, at least in their application to the situation in Pakistan, where information about, and transparency around, drone strikes is either lacking or contested where available, and where perceiving the U.S. “as a serious partner” is more easily said than done.

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One thought on “Follow-up to Drones and Anti-Americanism

  1. So, not knowing really anything about Yemen, I suppose my question would be this: Is the “drone–public opinion” formula in Yemen mediated and manipulated by an intervening variable in the form of a one-sided media, as it is in Pakistan? Because I feel that much of the disconnect between different “drone narratives” in PK depends very much on where audiences are receiving their news about drone strikes. The vast majorities of Pakistanis are against drone strikes. Yet the vast majorities of Pakistanis also have never had any direct experience with drone strikes (or even the FATA in general). They form opinions based on…what? Friday sermons? A Karachi/Lahore media that is as one-sided in its strident opposition to drones and support for the “Deep State” as it is opaque in its financing? IF that’s the case, then I don’t suppose there’s much mystery here…

    If, however, in Yemen there isn’t the equivalent of this comfortable, media-military symbiotic relationship, then it may be a much “purer” experiment in how public opinion actually reacts to these strikes… Just a thought.

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