The “grievance criticism” of targeted killings reared its head again yesterday in Ibrahim Mothana’s OpEd for the New York Times. I call it the grievance criticism because it is, logically speaking, quite simple – kill a member of someone’s family and they will bear a grudge against you. Ibrahim quotes a pretty snappy tweet by Hakyal Bafana to kick off his piece - “Dear Obama, when a U.S. drone missile kills a child in Yemen, the father will go to war with you, guaranteed. Nothing to do with Al Qaeda.” David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum pointed out something similar back in 2009 (they probably weren’t the first to make the point) and it is now one of the key arguments against the use of targeted killings – kill kids, get radicals. Yesterday also saw the release of the Pew Poll of global opinion towards Barack Obama. Oddly enough, Pakistan’s residents apparently thought better of America with President George W. Bush at the helm rather than the current incumbent. That fact may or may not have something to do with the vast expansion of targeted killings under Obama’s leadership, as documented by the BIJ and others. Still, maybe Obama can take comfort in the fact that Pakistan’s population has more confidence in him than Angela Merkel or Vladimir Putin. I mention the Pew poll because opinions matter, especially to people arguing that America should discontinue targeted killings of people they believe to be related to al Qaeda on the basis of opinion.
The “grievance criticism” is, I think, important, but it is also hamstrung by a couple of problems. The first is causal – we know that targeted killings kill civilians (only an idiot would believe that they don’t in the face of contrary evidence), and these civilians leave behind numerous grieving family members likely to bear a grudge. Interestingly, the actual status of a person killed by an American strike is non-discriminatory in this regard – militants and terrorists leave behind upset family as well. The problem, as I see it, is the lack of evidence for a causal link between (rightly) upset family members and actions that are counter to US interests. I am not a Yemen expert, nor am I an expert on Pakistan, but I’ve read enough on both countries to think that a simplistic causal equation of “grievance = more violence towards USA” or towards the relevant state authorities in all likelihood vastly understates the social mechanisms at work. The problem with the grievance criticism is that this link is somewhat assumed: “Nevertheless, every one of these dead noncombatants represents an alienated family, a new desire for revenge, and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially even as drone strikes have increased.” – If not stating it directly, Kilcullen and Exum certainly implied a direct link between targeted killings and the growth of an insurgent movement, which ignores other factors such as the government, previous wars and social structures. That isn’t to say that targeted killings don’t inflame popular opinion, or that people haven’t been radicalised by them, but a single (lethal) policy tool can’t explain everything that is going on. This is elaborated in Mothana’s OpEd, on one hand “mounting grievances since the 1994 civil war have driven a strong secessionist movement” and “Unlike Al Qaeda in Iraq, A.Q.A.P. has worked on gaining the support of local communities by compromising on some of their strict religious laws and offering basic services, electricity and gas to villagers in the areas they control. Furthermore, Iran has seized this chance to gain more influence among the disgruntled population in Yemen’s south.” But these factors aren’t apparently the issue, because the article blames targeted killings for creating “A new generation of leaders is spontaneously emerging in furious retaliation to attacks on their territories and tribes” which “is why A.Q.A.P. is much stronger in Yemen today than it was a few years ago. In 2009, A.Q.A.P. had only a few hundred members and controlled no territory; today it has, along with Ansar al-Sharia, at least 1,000 members and controls substantial amounts of territory.” With so much anger and instability washing around, it would take a fool to claim that targeted killings weren’t angering people, but it seems to me that it is similarly foolish to singularly blame the growth of insurgent movements and AQAP on targeted killings.
This leads me to the second problem of the grievance criticism: the straw-man argument of utopian tautological solutions. As Mohana puts it: “Only a long-term approach based on building relations with local communities, dealing with the economic and social drivers of extremism, and cooperating with tribes and Yemen’s army will eradicate the threat of Islamic radicalism.” I totally agree with the above. If America and Yemen can indeed build relations with local communities, raise the standard of living and so on, people living in Yemen will likely be less pissed off at both the Yemeni government and America. The problem is that such a solution doesn’t exist. It’s a mirage. It’s what the West said it was going to do in Afghanistan, it’s how they said that Iraq was going to go (once they figured out the war didn’t end with the fall of Baghdad) and so on. This second part of the grievance criticism goes: you don’t have to kill people and piss off their families, you can make everyone happy instead. The problem is, no-one has yet figured out how to do that, at least not with violent insurgencies that require counter-insurgency operations. The schizophrenia involved in arguing against UAVs and targeted killings while ignoring the fact that the proposed option B (large scale state building and counter insurgency) also kills people and makes them unhappy, astounds me.
Of all the arguments against targeted killings, I think the grievance criticism is the most powerful, but it requires more work to iron out its assumptions. Saying “we shouldn’t do this because they will hate us” doesn’t really carry any weight in wars, because civilians will always die and people will always end up hating other people because of that. Neither is the world a place in which ill-feeling can be neatly balanced, as Schopenhauer put it: ”A quick test of the assertion that enjoyment outweighs pain in this world, or that they are at any rate balanced, would be to compare the feelings of an animal engaged in eating another with those of the animal being eaten.”