Will 2013 be the year of the drone?

Will 2013 be the year of the drone?  This is a question that may define the Af-Pak policy and perhaps how the rhetoric of “Global War on Terror”  ( GWOT) is shaped in the months ahead. With over 3228 people dead in the drone strikes, of whom about 881 are estimated to be civilians, this is turning out to be President Obama’s litmus test as a “moral” leader. Another major criticism of the drone program is that it makes President Obama the Judge, Jury and Executioner, not very democratic, if you think about it. I believe that the coming year is likely to be the year of the drone, unless something dramatic happens and the GWOT is concluded.

The roots of this strategy of using drones to strike hi-value targets by the current administration are in the speech that President Obama gave, in 2009, in which he said:” So let me be clear:  Al Qaeda and its allies — the terrorists who planned and supported the 9/11 attacks — are in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Multiple intelligence estimates have warned that al Qaeda is actively planning attacks on the United States homeland from its safe haven in Pakistan.  And if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban — or allows al Qaeda to go unchallenged — that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.” How effective has this strategy been ?

Well, not much according to a new report, released in Sept.2012 by the Stanford International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic (IHRCRC) and Global Justice Clinic (GJC) at NYU School of Law. They point out that the narrative of “surgical strikes” that take out specific individuals is wrong and that the drone strikes are having a counter-productive impact. Their work is based on  nine months of intensive research—including two investigations in Pakistan, more than 130 interviews with victims, witnesses, and experts, and review of thousands of pages of documentation and media reporting.  The report also quotes The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), an independent journalist organization, which has reported that:” From June 2004 through mid-September 2012,  data indicated that drone strikes killed 2562-3325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children.TBIJ reports that these strikes also injured an additional 1,228-1,362 individuals. “

So what?, one might ask. We are just going after the bad guys and there is bound to be some collateral damage in the process. Well, this is precisely the problem. When the “targeted killings” kill about an equal number of civilians and make life unbearable for people in that region, then the local population is likely to sympathize with those very people whom we are targeting as evil. As Robert Pape and James Feldman point out in their book, Cutting the Fuse, the very cause of suicide terrorism is nationalism and the feeling among people that the American forces are “occupying” their lands. This “occupation” by foreign forces unleashes very strong forces of anti-Americanism and nationalism which lead to attacks against American and allied forces. They have shown data, which includes all known cases of suicide terrorism ( including 9/11) that this is the root cause of the problems.

US Drone Strike Statistics estimate according to the New America Foundation

There is intense debate even among President Obama’s supporters about the drone’s effectiveness and how the rhetoric of using them have been counter-productive, as this article points out. The Obama administration has carried out five times as many covert drone strikes as the Bush administration, as this Colbert Report pointed out, not without irony, and Stephen Colbert points out :” So what’s behind the president’s righteous kill spree? Could it be that he’s just gunning for another Nobel Peace Prize?”

Counter-narrative to this criticism is that this is a more effective way of dealing with terrorists, and studies by RAND corporation has shown that drone strikes drone strikes are associated with decreases in both the frequency and the lethality of militant attacks overall and in IED and suicide attacks specifically. While one can question their methods of analysis ( statistical analysis), even the report acknowledges that :” To the extent drone strikes ”work,” their effectiveness is more likely to lie in disrupting militant operations at the tactical level than as a silver bullet that will reverse the course of the war and singlehandedly defeat Al-Qaeda.”

In conclusion, I think the really important question one needs to ask is not whether 2013 will be the year of the drone, but the bigger question : Is the  Global war on terror over? Because the issue of drones is inextricably linked to the GWOT, and unless we wind that down, it is very likely that the drone strikes will continue. 

Ten books you must read in 2013


A friend recently asked me for a book recommendation, and I rattled off a few titles,  and felt good about the recommendations I had just made. But on reflection, I realized that I hadn’t suggested the BEST books to read, given the paucity of time that we all have. So, if your interests are in the area of Political Science, Critical theory and (or) Civil Society, here are my favorite books.

I have read these and a few more related titled this year and highly recommend them. These are not ranked in any particular order and are clearly books you should consider buying. Collectors items indeed!

  1. Before European Hegemony by Janet Abu Lughod – A classic in its own right. Abu Lughod de-constructs how the current global market system is a by-product of 13th century European trade system. An eye-opening analysis, done with meticulous care.  She talks about how trade was impacted by demographic shifts, weather, wars among other things. You should read her work on Egypt, as well. She is brilliant.
  2. Shadows of War by Caroline Nordstrom – Another gem of a book by an Anthropologist. She analyzes “shadow economies” in war zones, how they are formed, perpetuated. Her work questions deep-rooted assumptions of what is legal and illegal. I kept asking myself, “so who is the criminal here?”, not knowing if it was the diamond smuggler or the corrupt NGO person who was at fault. A true page turner.
  3. Political Order in Changing Societies  by Samuel Huntington – Well, Samuel Huntingtion is not all evil. That is the conclusion I reached after reading his first book. This was written way back in the day (even before I was born), and it shows the power of his analysis (perhaps at his best). He looks at how political growth and economic growth don’t necessarily go hand in hand and how societies adapt to democracies.
  4. Leadership without easy answers by Ronald Heifetz – In case you want to read some leadership stuff. This is a fairly easy read, but his analysis of leadership is quite rich. He is a good writer, who brings in insights from cognitive psychology, his first profession.
  5. Marx- Engels reader –  I must admit, I read my fair share of Marxist theories this semester, and have started to appreciate the necessity of reading Marx, whether you like him or hate him – you just cant ignore him. Much of political economic analysis, globalization theories owe him a lot. My Libertarian friends may disagree.
  6. Rule of Experts by Timothy Mitchell – Another solid book on how the Western intervention in Egypt has played out over the past several decades. This takes a close look at the technologies of knowledge production and colonization in Egypt. A fascinating read.
  7. World Systems Analysis by Immanuel Wallerstein – If you think the whole world is one big mess, you would be agreeing with Wallerstein. It was his idea that one has to look at the world, as an organizing unit for analysis and not each nation state separately. Though the theory is over 30 yrs old, it is still useful today.
  8. The Sociological Imagination by C Wright Mills – Mills is to Sociology what Einstein is to Physics. So, I would encourage you to pick this book up. And he is a great writer too! Very readable book. Short and crisp, it will shake you up a bit.
  9. The Souls of Black Folk by WEB Du Bois – I just finished reading this classic yesterday and I must admit, it was almost poetic. The language is fluid, beautiful and extremely sensitive to the subject that he handles. Considered one of the most important books about African-Americans, this is a book you should not miss. Du Bois was the first Black man to get a PhD ( from Harvard University, no less) and is still considered one of the greatest Black leaders of all times. An intellectual giant.
  10.  The Nuclear Borderlands by Joseph Masco – Masco takes us on a journey to explain how the Manhattan project has shaped public consciousness of the Atomic bomb in the U.S. Using ethnographic studies of parts of the U.S which have housed the nuclear power plants, he looks at how native American lands have been taken over by the state, how the poor have been treated and how the fascination for the bomb continues, in its own strange way, even to this day.