Why Obama's drone war may soon reach a tipping point

Such a steady escalation of the drone war—and the inevitable increase in civilian casualties that will accompany it—could easily tip the delicate balance that assures we kill more terrorists than we produce. To be sure, Yemen deserves the scrutiny of U.S. national security officials: It is Osama bin Laden’s ancestral homeland and many of the major pre-9/11 attacks were either planned there or carried out by Yemeni nationals. But there are already signs that the drone campaign there is producing a backlash: Toronto Star national security reporter Michelle Shepard recently highlighted the effects of an infamous December 2009 strike in Abyan province that killed 55, including 14 women and 21 children. Shepard quotes a Yemeni analyst, Abdul Ghani al-Iryani, who attributes the rise of Ansar al Sharia, a key AQAP ally, directly to the outrage over that incident. “Of the thousands of Ansar al Sharia now fighting in Abyan, the majority were not al Qaeda; they were angered by what they saw as American aggression,” Iryani said, calling it “one event that radicalized an entire [province].”

There’s every reason to think the same is true in Pakistan, where the shaky alliance between Washington and Islamabad has been pushed to the point of breaking. CNN terrorism expert Peter Bergen noted last summer that, “On average, only one out of every seven U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan kills a militant leader. The majority of those killed in such strikes are not important insurgent commanders but rather low-level fighters, together with a small number of civilians. In total, according to our analysis, less than two percent of those killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have been described in reliable press accounts as leaders of al Qaeda or allied groups.” This has clearly taken a toll on public opinion. A major survey conducted in Pakistan by the New America Foundation found that “nearly nine out every ten people in FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] oppose the U.S. military pursuing al-Qaeda and the Taliban in their region” and that “the intensity of opposition to the American military is high. While only one in ten of FATA residents think suicide attacks are often or sometimes justified against the Pakistani military and police, almost six in ten believe these attacks are justified against the U.S. military.”