Cross-posted from Joshua Foust’s regular column for The Atlantic.
A new report excoriates the United States’ unmanned aerial strikes against terrorists in South Asia. But are there better alternatives?
A new report, “Living Under Drones,” jointly authored by Stanford University and New York University — and reviewed yesterday by Conor Friedersdorf here at The Atlantic – is harshly critical of the drone campaign in Pakistan. The report argues that the U.S. narrative of drone strikes — precise, accurate, and limited — is false. Citing 130 interviews and a review of media reports, the authors argue that the civilian toll from drone strikes is far higher than acknowledged, that many problems with the drone campaign go unreported, and that more government transparency is essential to gaining a better understanding of the campaign and its consequences.
On that last point, the authors are absolutely right — more transparency about targeting and effects would help everyone understand the consequences of drone strikes in Pakistan. And there are absolutely serious downsides to these strikes (some of which have been explored here already). But the report then makes some questionable claims based on incomplete data, and seems to argue that the drone campaign should be paused or radically altered. Those arguments are not well supported.
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 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.
The Living Under Drones report, in other words, has some serious bias issues. But that doesn’t mean it should be discarded: the section on social and political blowback from drone strikes is well documented and in line with other research. In summary, the report declares that the use of drones in Pakistan is a campaign of terror, creating severe psychological trauma among residents of the FATA and creating a pervasive environment of fear.
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.
But there is a simpler explanation: Perhaps drones are not as scary as opponents claim. A Februaryinvestigation 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. Reports like Living Under Drones highlight the need for both more transparency from the US and Pakistani governments, and for drawing attention to the social backlash against their use in Pakistan. But they do not definitively build a case against drones in general. Without a better alternative, drones are here to stay.