In this New York Times op-ed and in a book he has written, Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani official now teaching at American University in Washington, tries mightily hard to blame U.S. drone strikes for the growing radicalization in Pakistan’s tribal areas. He thereby confuses cause and effect.
He notes correctly that tribal authority has weakened in the frontier regions of Pakistan. The same thing has happened in Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali, Yemen, Somalia, and other lands where violent Salafist organizations such the Taliban, al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and al-Shabaab have tried to substitute their own form of militant rule in favor of the traditional structures that have governed tribal life.
But in the case of Pakistan, Ahmed chooses to place the blame not where it belongs–on a corrupt and ineffectual Pakistani state that can’t govern its own territory and on a violent movement called the Pakistani Taliban which has been taking advantage of state weakness–but rather on America’s program of drone strikes. He does so by clever juxtaposition of timelines, which implies causality where the evidence for it is actually tenuous.
He writes that “over the past few decades,” the pillars of tribal society in western Pakistan
have weakened. And in 2004, with the Pakistani army’s unprecedented assault and American drones’ targeting suspected supporters of Al Qaeda in Waziristan, the pillars of authority began to crumble.
In the vacuum that followed, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistani Taliban, emerged. Its first targets were tribal authorities. Approximately 400 elders have been killed in Waziristan alone, a near-decapitation of traditional society.
Note how this conflates two separate developments–carefully targeted U.S. drone strikes and the Pakistani Army’s ham-handed and brutal assault into South Waziristan–as if they were one and the same. Ahmed makes no attempt to disentangle the threads here; rather he prefers to blame all of the weakness of tribal society and all of the brutality of the Pakistani Taliban on U.S. drone strikes. That’s a lot of weight to assign to an estimated 356 drone strikes since 2004–or roughly 40 a year, less than one a week–all of which are far more carefully targeted than the Pakistani Army’s blunderbuss use of artillery and air strikes against villages.
That rate actually exaggerates the pace of strikes since the average is driven up by an especially high number of strikes in 2010 (122); the number was much smaller before under President Bush and has fallen since. The reason why the number of drone strikes has increased is precisely because of the growing sway that militants have established in the tribal areas; the notion that the strikes themselves have caused the growth in militant activity remains, at most, an unproven supposition.
I have never believed that drone strikes can be the end all and be all of counterterrorism policy. I do believe that we need a more effective state-building strategy in Pakistan and that simply eliminating individual terrorist leaders will not make the threat go away.
But at the same time I don’t for a minute believe–as Ahmed and other critics of the strikes implicitly suggest–that if we simply stopped the drone strikes, then the tribal elders would re-establish their authority and the threat from the Pakistani Taliban and other militant groups would recede. Quite the opposite: The drone strikes are one of the few effective measures keeping these extremist groups in check. Stop the strikes and the threat to the Pakistani state will grow. And that, in turn, means that the threat to the U.S. will grow because we can’t allow Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal to fall into the wrong heads.