Terrorism is a simple concept: the use of violence to terrorize rather than to defeat. State terrorism is terrorism done by a regime rather than by a non-state actor. That’s the theory. The practice, in Pakistan, is described below.
A new study of U.S. drone policy in Pakistan from Stanford and NYU describes U.S. actions that plainly describe what can only be called “state terrorism:”
US drone strike policies cause considerable and under-accounted for harm to the daily lives of ordinary civilians, beyond death and physical injury. Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves. These fears have affected behavior. The US practice of striking one area multiple times, and evidence that it has killed rescuers, makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims. Some community members shy away from gathering in groups, including important tribal dispute-resolution bodies, out of fear that they may attract the attention of drone operators. Some parents choose to keep their children home, and children injured or traumatized by strikes have dropped out of school. Waziris told our researchers that the strikes have undermined cultural and religious practices related to burial, and made family members afraid to attend funerals. In addition, families who lost loved ones or their homes in drone strikes now struggle to support themselves. [Living Under Drones 9/2012.]
Yes, drones kill high-level militants – about 2% of the time, according to the study. The other 98% of the time, the drones kill a frighteningly random collection of unknown individuals including an unknown number of innocents with some percentage of identified militants mixed in. But even these identified militants may be patriots fighting for a better future with no intention of ever picking a battle with Americans (so long as Americans stay out of their backyard). The number of new recruits for each of the rare high-level militants killed is unknown. Whatever the real numbers, it is fanciful to imagine that no reaction will ever come from the thousands of individuals being terrorized, and it is fanciful to imagine that the undermining of international law and the general level of global civilization flowing from the last standing superpower’s egregious flouting of commonly accepted norms of behavior will never produce a reaction harmful to U.S. national security. What unimaginative Washington officials are doing in Pakistan is not so much fighting a war as punishing a population–doing the extremists’ job for them. Given that Washington has been implementing this strategy for a decade, it is becoming harder and harder to believe that U.S. officials are just confused and desperate rather than having some self-serving private agenda. But I could be wrong. Perhaps victory next month will give Obama the backbone he needs to change policy.
Random acts of terror against whole societies can be effective over the short term if truly overwhelming, as the examples of Pinochet and the 1992 Algerian generals’ coup show. But there is no evidence that U.S. drone policy is truly overwhelming in Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Rather, it seems to be a form of terrorism that antagonizes and motivates those with enough anger and ability to fight back, while undermining precisely the civil society that constitutes the best hope for stabilizing these societies. In any case, the U.S. drone campaign is already far past the short term and is still expanding (Mali being the newest potential target) without any obvious achievements in terms of pacifying any society. As a strategy, drones are failing even as they make matters worse by multiplying our enemies.
These chickens too will come home to roost, and then once again Americans in righteous indignation and pathetic ignorance will ask, “Why do they hate us?” But perhaps more to the point for current U.S. leaders, the policy simply is not working: drones empower anti-American extremists, destabilize victim societies, and undermine U.S. national security.