Abstract: In this talk, I present three findings from an in-depth investigation of the US Drone War in Pakistan from 2004 to 2014. First, I use a panel estimation strategy to show a negative statistical association between the drone war period from 2008 onward and insurgent violence in Pakistan. Second, I use a process tracing approach, drawing on data collected through fieldwork in Pakistan including interviews with members of Al-Qaeda and Pakistan Taliban, to show the drone war period from 2008 to 2014 led to dramatic reduction in the targeted organizations’ operational capabilities, folding of and displacement from bases, managerial challenges like desertions, and political breakdown like splintering and feuds. Third, I use interview-based data to show that the popularly held notion of “drone blowback” – that drone strikes energize recruitment of targeted armed groups - doesn’t find empirical support. I explain these findings by introducing a new concept of Legibility and Speed-of-exploitation System, or L&S in short. L&S varies in the degree of legibility of the population where armed groups are based (legibility, in short) and the speed of exploitation of legibility gains (speed, in short). I argue that the period of the US Drone War which attained high levels of L&S (2008 to 2014) was very disruptive for the targeted groups. The theoretical position and empirical findings challenge the wisdom on importance of winning “hearts-and-minds” of civilians in counterterrorism/counterinsurgency. The findings also have important policy implications for how US policymakers are likely to approach the challenge of managing threats by Al-Qaeda and ISIS from weak states.
Speaker bio: Asfandyar Mir is a Social Science Predoctoral fellow at CISAC and a PhD Candidate in Political Science at the University of Chicago. His research focuses on effectiveness of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations. His research draws on quantitative and qualitative microdata collected through field work and archival sources. Some of his research is forthcoming in Security Studies. His commentary has been featured in the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage.