Joshua Foust provides a nice summation of our problems with drone warfare in Pakistan. A recent report released from Stanford and NYU, Living Under Drones, has been very critical of the effects of drone killings. The report claims there are many more civilian deaths than is commonly reported. Foust points out some of the problems with the study.
For starters, the sample size of the study is 130 people. In a country of 175 million, that is just not representative. 130 respondents isn’t representative even of the 800,000 or so people in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the region of Pakistan where most drone strikes occur. Moreover, according to the report’s methodology section, there is no indication of how many respondents were actual victims of drone strikes, since among those 130 they also interviewed “current and former Pakistani government officials, representatives from five major Pakistani political parties, subject matter experts, lawyers, medical professionals, development and humanitarian workers, members of civil society, academics, and journalists.”
The Living Under Drones report has some serious bias issues.
The authors did not conduct interviews in the FATA, but Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore, and Peshawar. The direct victims they interviewed were contacted initially by the non-profit advocacy group Foundation for Fundamental Rights, which is not a neutral observer (their explicit mission is to end the use of drones in Pakistan). The report relies on a database compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which relies on media accounts for most of its data. The authors discount the utility of relying on media accounts, since media in Pakistan rely on the Pakistani government for information (reporters are not allowed independent access to the FATA). Even accepting their description of the BIJ data as the most “reliable,” these data are highly suspect.
I believe Foust makes a good case that the data obtained in the aforementioned report is suspect. Pakistan has a long history of blaming problems on the US as a means of distracting from its own poor governance. Note that with all of these claims of problems, Pakistan does not ask us to stop the drone attacks. As Foust points out, the FATA area is a problem for the Pakistan government, and their efforts in the area have been disasters. Conceding that residents in the FATA area are afraid of drones, what happens when alternatives are employed?
Left unstated in the report, though, is a bigger question: is there a better alternative to drone strikes for counterterrorism in northwest Pakistan?
It is not a simple one to answer. Looking at how residents in the FATA have behaved in other violent campaigns is instructive. In early 2009, the Pakistani Army announced its campaign to “clear” the Swat Valley, north of Islamabad, of terrorist groups that had been systematically murdering elders and tribal policemen and destroying hundreds of schools and other government buildings. As the campaign proceeded, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said more than 300,000 people fled the fighting. By the end of the campaign, more than 1 million people got displaced by the army-Taliban fighting in Swat, which left the region completely devastated.
There have been no reported mass movements of people fleeing the drones in the last four years. The mere threat of a Pakistani army offensive into Waziristan, however, prompts thousands to flee in terror. There are several possible explanations: for example, people in heavily affected drone areas might be terrified to leave their houses.
Foust draws the following conclusions.
But there is a simpler explanation: Perhaps drones are not as scary as opponents claim. A February investigation by the Associated Press — which, unlike the Living Under Drones study, interviewed Pakistanis inside the FATA — reported that civilian casualties from drones are far lower than Pakistan civil society figures, journalists, and party officials assert publicly. This calls into question the wisdom of relying on such interested parties to build a picture of the utility and morality of targeted killings in Pakistan. Furthermore, the Community Appraisal and Motivation Programme (CAMP), a Pakistan-based research group, consistently finds in its surveys within the FATA that the most pressing security fear among residents is bomb blasts by terror groups, followed closely by the Pakistani military. When asked open-ended questions about their greatest fears, very few ever mention drones.
That’s not to say people love drones. Many constituencies in the rest of the country are strongly opposed to the drone campaign. But both terror groups and the Pakistani military kill far more innocent civilians and leave far more physical devastation in their wake — what is the “least bad” course for policymakers?
In the short run, there aren’t better choices than drones. The targets of drone strikes in Pakistan sponsor insurgents in the region that kill U.S. soldiers and destabilize the Pakistani state (that is why Pakistani officials demand greater control over targeting). They cannot simply be left alone to continue such violent attacks. And given the Pakistani government’s reluctance either to grant the FATA the political inclusion necessary for normal governance or to establish an effective police force (right now it has neither), there is no writ of the state to impose order and establish the rule of law.
Drones represent the choice with the smallest set of drawbacks and adverse consequences.
I think he makes good points. The damage caused by the Pakistani jihadists and military is much greater than that caused by drones. A lot of the fear and anger over drones is manufactured anger, often by the Pakistani government that is supporting drone attacks. However, Foust does not touch upon a couple of important points. First, what does the US get out of these drone attacks? Is there any purpose to our continuing these? After 11 years, we have shown that we can fairly accurately target and kill suspected Taliban leaders, and maybe some al Qaeda. What difference does it make anymore? Our efforts in Afghanistan are clearly coming to a close, and it looks to have been a disappointment. Will we gain anything by continuing these attacks if we are leaving? How does this help make people in the US safer? Does this help Pakistan, with whom we claim some kind of friendship/alliance? I find that unlikely, and am not keen on conducting war efforts for another country with which we have such dubious ties.
Even if we can answer these strategic questions in such a way that supports continued drone attacks, we need to remember that we are outsiders attacking citizens of another country. Those deaths are seen differently. Throughout history, warring factions in a country have often united to repel foreign invaders. (Successful invaders have also used those factions against each other, so it goes both ways.) In this case, while we do not invade, we are regularly killing foreign nationals while the faction that should be supporting our effort, uses those killings to rally support against us. This sounds like a no-win situation to me. Unless someone can make a compelling case that it is in our national security interests to continue drone attacks, and that they are likely to produce a desired outcome, we should stop them as we withdraw from Afghanistan.