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Saturday, October 12, 2013

Malala tells Obama that drone attacks fuel terrorism

That was reported in the Washington Post this morning, and there's a lively debate in the comments on whether she's right or not.  Some say that the only way to stop terrorism is by killing its leaders, and it's easier to do that by drone than by a full scale invasion, and if there's some collateral damage, well, that's the price we (and the victims, and the victims' loved ones) pay for the result.  And of course, Obama knows there's a tradeoff, and he's used his judgment to continue -- well, exponentiate [if that's a word] -- the drone attacks.

Others support Malala, and wonder why Obama has to learn this from a 16-year-old.

True, I don't have the all the information that Obama does.  But I do have some experience with organizations generally.  And in my experience, for every person that is currently a "leader" in an organization, there are at least five or more equally-qualified people who would love to be the "leader" too.  And also, in my experience, the people who get the "leadership" positions are not always the greatest leaders; often the ones just below would be much better.   I'd be surprised if the Taliban or Al Qaeda or any of the other other terrorist organizations that we are targeting were any different.

So the whole idea of "cutting off the head" by killing the leaders of these movements seems cockeyed to me.  That might work if you've got a single charismatic leader on whom the whole organization depends.  But that's clearly not the case here -- we're going after dozens if not hundreds of "leaders" that nobody's ever heard of.  You kill a leader, and then there's a brief power vacuum, but then the next guy steps up and takes that leader's place.  The organization doesn't just go home -- it continues to exist based on its principles and ideas, and the very drone attack that killed the leader is just one more affirmation of the "correctness" of those principles and ideas.  The people in the organization continue to believe in them, and will simply follow the next leader, and many of them are doubtless hoping to advance to leadership positions within the organization themselves.  The very possibility of drone-created vacancies might seem like not such a bad thing for their ambitions.

In the case of terrorist organizations, we've got the additional fact that they are often very well funded, e.g. with Saudi oil money.  The death of one leader isn't going to affect the benefits that they can offer to new recruits, and the killing of innocents by drones will simply increase recruiting.  If I'm a young man and my little sister or brother is killed by a drone, and I don't have much else going on in my life, I'm signing up.  What am I missing?

Maybe this is what I'm missing:  Maybe, just maybe, there is only a limited supply of educated Muslim clerics with access to Saudi (or other) money who are willing to step up and into these "leadership" positions.  I suppose if there really is only a finite supply of those people, if we can kill them off by drone, that might have a real effect.  That doesn't answer the moral question of whether these executions -- and the inevitable collateral damage -- is something a supposedly-civilized country should be doing, but perhaps if it's all a "cost-benefit" game, and the goal is to stop terrorism at all costs, perhaps the drone killing is "justifiable" on some level, if not morally so.  I still think the whole campaign most likely does more harm than good -- it really hurts our standing in the world, and undermines any effort to try to lead by example, which for me, has always been the only way out of this downward spiral.  But as always, I try to present both sides of an issue.

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