On June 4, a U.S. drone strike in North Waziristan killed 15 people, including senior al-Qaeda leader Abu Yahya al-Libi. And, with a recent New York Times report highlighting the Obama administration’s decision-making over the program, the CIA’s covert war in Pakistan’s tribal areas has once again taken center stage in discussion of U.S.-Pakistan relations.
Drone attacks in Pakistan, which have increased exponentially under President Barack Obama, have prompted huge controversy. The debate around them, however, has become extremely polarized, leaving little space in the middle for a more nuanced discussion. As a result, the whole debate over the issue has generated numerous myths and inaccuracies.
Drone attacks raise important ethical and legal questions, questions that have long been debated by proponents and critics alike. For the moment, though, we will put these aside. Instead, relying on available statistical and anecdotal evidence, there are four major myths about the program that have emerged within the U.S. and Pakistan that should be recognized and responded to.
Myth number one, promoted by the Obama administration, is that drone strikes have resulted in few civilian casualties. The available evidence, however, suggests that civilian casualties from drone strikes are substantial. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports between 2,464 and 3,145 fatalities from drone attacks in Pakistan, of which 482 to 830 have been civilians. According to the New America Foundation, estimated civilian fatalities range from 293 to 471.
The fact that the administration’s criterion for identifying combatants is limited to “all military-age males in a strike zone” means innocent civilians will inevitably be targeted when the militants hide amongst them. Moreover, the emphasis the administration places on the efficiency of such attacks is misleading, as the relative precision of drone strikes is of little consequence if the absolute number of civilian casualties keeps increasing.
The second myth, promoted in Pakistan, is that drone strikes are counter-productive. There are two aspects to this argument from a security perspective: drone strikes are harmful because they cause militants to retaliate by launching terrorist attacks, and they also help their recruitment efforts. The data so far, however, seems to suggest otherwise as terrorist attacks have fallen in Pakistan with the escalation of the drone program. Furthermore, a recent study also found a negative correlation between drone strikes and terrorist activity the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. There’s no evidence to suggest that recruitment by militant groups has increased either.
A separate concern is that the drone strikes offer opposition groups within and outside the government ammunition with which to mobilize anti-American sentiment, making support for U.S. policies politically costly. Certainly, although drone strikes are clearly effective in terms of their stated security-centric goals, such political and social consequences do genuinely warrant discussion.
The third myth is that the Pakistani government opposes the drone campaign. While there’s genuine opposition amongst many members of the Pakistani parliament and political opposition parties, the military and ruling government have long offered some support for the program. Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the Army chief, has in the past even asked for more strikes. Furthermore, until recently, drones often flew out of Pakistan, and human intelligence support for the strikes continues to come from Pakistan.
Pakistan has not, of course, given the U.S. carte blanche over drone use. It had long asked to be notified prior to any strike, and last April the U.S. and Pakistan reached a compromise on this. Tensions over the program in the aftermath of the Salala incident arise not from Pakistan’s opposition to it, but from its desire for an increased role in the decision-making process. Pakistan reportedly told the United States that indiscriminate strikes had to stop and, according to former Pakistan Army Chief Gen. Jehangir Karamat, the military also asked that its authorization be sought for future strikes.
The fourth myth concerns popular views of drone strikes in Pakistan.While it’s widely believed that all Pakistanis oppose drone strikes, several analysts from the tribal areas have argued that in FATA, at least, “many favor” and “welcome the drone attacks.” The Peshawar Declaration, through which civil society groups supported drone strikes, is referenced as one prominent example.
Still, a broad look at the available data doesn’t support one view or another. Opinion over drone strikes is far from uniform, as they are less unpopular inside FATA than in the rest of Pakistan. While 97 percent of Pakistanis polled outside of FATAhave said drone strikes are “a bad thing,” 76 percent of people in FATA opposed them. Similarly, while 89 percent of Pakistanis outside of FATA believe strikes kill innocent civilians, only 48 percent agree with this in FATA. Clearly, there isn’t widespread support for drone strikes. But there’s also no homogeneity of views.
The drone program understandably arouses genuine concern. Unfortunately, the debate remains unstructured and rife with inaccuracies stemming from security agendas rather than data. The concerns regarding this issue can only be addressed through systematic analysis that extends beyond a security-centric approach. Obviously, before constructive dialogue can take place, misconceptions need to be cleared-up and some clear distinctions in definitions and opinion must be made. We hope that this admittedly short piece at least offers a starting point for making this happen.
Shehzad H. Qazi is a research associate at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. Shoaib Jillani is a graduate student in the Wilf Family Department of Politics at New York University.