The Real Blowback Fallacy

by , July 11, 2012

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Christopher Swift attempts to show that cause-and-effect is not a concept applicable to foreign policy in “The Drone Blowback Fallacy.” What he ends up doing only reinforces the idea that a government can’t continue butchering children and not expect the parents to one day retaliate.

It should be noted that blowback specifically refers to the consequences of covert foreign policy, not to overt operations that the general public has information on, as in the case of Yemen. This is because the public will be unable to connect cause and effect when a terrorist attack occurs if the public doesn’t understand that it’s actually a counterattack, not an unprovoked act. Nevertheless, I’ll operate under the assumption that Swift means simply the unintended consequences of waging a war from the air.

Swift explains that he recently traveled to Yemen in order to gather firsthand knowledge of the people and the situation, and while there he conducted 40 “in-depth interviews using structured questions and a skilled interpreter.” What he reportedly found was that most drew no connection between U.S. drone strikes and recruitment for al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP), though he acknowledges that “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.”

The reader is somehow expected to believe that three dozen cherry-picked Yemenis are somehow representative of all 25,000,000 people in that country. On its face, that’s simply ludicrous. The American equivalent would be polling 500 people handpicked from various neighborhoods and concluding that their answers are indicative of the opinions of the remaining 99.99984% of the population. But let’s assume his sample is representative. What does this mean?

It means that if five members of his group agreed that drone strikes aid in recruiting AQAP members, then roughly 3,000,000 other Yemenis must also support that conclusion. Again, comparing these figures to the U.S. population, we would expect more than 37,000,000 to agree with the statement. Having a handful of families angry over the wrongful death of a loved one is bad enough, but drawing the ire of tens of millions would be profound indeed.

Regardless of the accuracy of Swift’s study, I’m more inclined to believe the Yemeni people on this matter anyway. Those whose family members and neighbors are joining the fight ought to know better than anyone else. As we know, it only takes a handful of dedicated people to carry out devastating attacks. The bombings of the Marine barracks in Beirut, the attack on the USS Cole, and 9/11 only required a few dozen to a few hundred people. Critical mass for a terrorist cell is minuscule in relation to a conventional military buildup.

As Swift admits, there was a large boost in recruiting a few years ago following a U.S. bombing in Yemen that killed 58 people, including three dozen women and children. He refers to the P.R. aftermath of this incident as “an unexpected propaganda coup,” as if no one could have predicted that the murder of dozens of women and children would have deleterious effects on curbing terrorist recruiting efforts.

But of course that’s what happens, and this case was no different. In the years since, and with U.S. drone strikes and bombing becoming more frequent, al-Qaeda’s numbers have more than tripled, according to the White House’s own terrorism advisers. Estimates put the number of fighters at the time somewhere between two or three hundred, but in just two and a half years, more than 1,000 have joined their ranks.

But the real impetus for recruitment, argues Swift, is economic. He explains that AQAP “pays salaries (up to $400 per month) that lift families out of poverty. It supports weak and marginalized sheikhs by digging wells, distributing patronage to tribesmen, and punishing local criminals.” Again, it’s important to note that the U.S. government, in stark contrast, fires Hellfire missiles and drops cluster bombs on Yemen. It’s a wonder more aren’t clamoring to take up arms, given the inhumane attitude of the White House.

But the idea of it really only being an economic issue raises an interesting point: why doesn’t the U.S. just start writing these people paychecks? It’s what the U.S. did in Iraq, and that’s how George W. Bush claimed his third and largest troop surge was such a success. The Pentagon just paid off Sunnis to quit attacking U.S. patrols, and it dramatically reduced the number of attacks and corresponding U.S. casualty rates in 2007 and 2008.

I was in Iraq at the time of this so-called Sunni awakening and interacted with these fighters-turned-neighborhood-watchmen almost daily. There was no question the payments were being used to buy peace. The discussions between the commanders and the former/dormant al-Qaeda leaders weren’t veiled in any way; everyone knew the truth of the matter, and when disputes would arise on the amount or timing of payments, the two parties wouldn’t mince words. In one heated exchange, a mid-level al-Qaeda leader said it would be a shame if an IED killed a soldier on patrol because his men were unable to prevent it because of a lack of funding. The American officer responded, “If an IED kills one of my soldiers, I’ll drop a 500-pound bomb on your house.”

Obviously, there aren’t yet American troops getting killed on the ground in Yemen, that we know of, and that’s part of why the U.S. isn’t making these extortion payments.

It certainly shouldn’t be the role of the U.S. to police Yemen, but if the money is going to be spent, I would rather see it go to feeding some poor family or digging wells in the desert than burning the flesh off infants or dismembering whole families at random.

In the most naive of all arguments, Swift attempts to justify the supposed utility of drones by appealing to the sentiments of his sampled group. One militia commander explained that Yemenis could “accept [drones] as long as there are no more civilian casualties.” Swift quotes another leader, who said, “If the United States focuses on the leaders and civilians aren’t killed, then drone strikes will hurt al-Qaeda more than they help them.”

Well, of course, it would be less injurious to the efforts of the Pentagon and State Department if the U.S. quit killing innocent civilians. But this is never how it turns out, even when special care is taken to prevent innocent deaths, and certainly not when the use of “signature strikes” is becoming the norm. A signature strike is commonly defined as “those that target unidentified individuals in unidentified groups that are not engaged in direct hostilities with the U.S.”

So how can we expect to see civilian deaths curtailed when the open and acknowledged policy is to engage in signature strikes and fire follow-up missiles at those providing aid to the dying and wounded? We can’t, which is why this argument is pure rubbish. The only way to eliminate the deaths of innocent people is to end these wars.

Something to consider when discussing the issue is how the Yemeni people might react. A friend mentioned that because the drones go largely undetected and there’s virtually no defense that a primitive force can mount against them, the fighting is one-sided and seen as entirely unfair. Even if a drone were to be brought down, it’s unmanned and thus no casualties will be sustained by the operators. While many view this is as a plus and something to celebrate, as many advocates of the war do when they boast that the drones “save American lives,” this likely won’t last.

At some point the people of Yemen (and Somalia, Pakistan, and other countries) are going to want to retaliate. Because there’s no way for them to strike back at the drones, the retaliation could come in the form of attacks on so-called soft targets, or civilian populations inside the United States or abroad. This takes significant planning, financing, and time, so it could be a while before this happens.

It took the Iranians 26 years to retaliate for the coup against their government when they seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Other groups have planned for years before making a move. It’s entirely possible that children in Yemen who are now in grade school will one day retaliate as adults if these murderous drone strikes and continued meddling aren’t brought to an immediate halt.

It’s illogical to conclude that blowback must be a fallacy since nothing bad has happened yet to the American people as a result of the drone wars in Yemen. To view blowback as a failed concept unworthy of further investigation or scrutiny is incredibly myopic and ignores the volatile situation in Yemen and other parts of the region. Blowback isn’t an overnight phenomenon; it grows like a cancer and spreads undetected, and it is just as real and deadly.

Read more by Joel Poindexter