Andrew Exum linked to my recent Threat Matrix post in his own post about drone strikes — as an example of how “careless readers of [Exum and Kilcullen’s] argument mistakenly assume we agree with open-source reporting out of Pakistan.” A few points in response.
First of all, I have a lot of respect for Andrew Exum, and believe he is generally on the right side of most issues related to counterinsurgency. That said, I don’t think my reading of his NYT op-ed was careless. Nor do I think Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann were careless in their identical description of Exum and Kilcullen’s op-ed in their report, which I linked to.
You can judge for yourself — here’s what Exum and Kilcullen said in their NYT op-ed “Death From Above, Outrage Down Below”:
While violent extremists may be unpopular, for a frightened population they seem less ominous than a faceless enemy that wages war from afar and often kills more civilians than militants. Press reports suggest that over the last three years drone strikes have killed about 14 terrorist leaders. But, according to Pakistani sources, they have also killed some 700 civilians. This is 50 civilians for every militant killed, a hit rate of 2 percent – hardly “precision.” American officials vehemently dispute these figures, and it is likely that more militants and fewer civilians have been killed than is reported by the press in Pakistan. Nevertheless, every one of these dead noncombatants represents an alienated family, a new desire for revenge, and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially even as drone strikes have increased.
That argument seems pretty clear to me. But Exum explained that he wasn’t addressing the actual number of civilians killed:
On the contrary. I focus on Pakistani press reports because, in a war of perceptions, I am less concerned with how many civilians we are actually killing and more concerned with how many civilians the neutral population thinks we are killing.
Well, that’s a fair point. In any counterinsurgency, the main objective for the counterinsurgent should be to win the support of the population — without which any insurgency will shrivel and die. So clearly, shaping the attitudes of the Pakistani population in these areas is a key part of the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. I don’t think anyone would dispute that these strikes are widely opposed by Pakistanis, or that they have caused a lot of outrage and anger across the Pakistani political spectrum, as Exum and Kilcullen correctly noted in their NYT column. And I wholeheartedly agree with Exum when he writes:
I really think drone strikes can be part of an effective, integrated CT and COIN strategy, but they cannot substitute for such a strategy.
But I do take issue with Exum and Kilcullen’s main argument: that drone strikes are mostly counterproductive because they kill — or even appear to kill — lots of civilians, generating anger and resentment among ordinary Pakistanis that will increase sympathy and recruitment for the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Consider a few counter-facts: A Terror Free Tomorrow poll of Pakistanis in 2007 (i.e. before the sharp increase in drone strikes beginning in mid-2008) found that 74% opposed U.S. military action against the Taliban and AQ inside Pakistan. Just 19% had a favorable opinion of the United States. The Taliban had a 38% approval rating — and 43% positive for Al-Qaeda.
In August 2009, an IRI poll of Pakistanis found that opposition to U.S. military action against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda inside Pakistan was…almost exactly the same (76%). The U.S. favorability rating among Pakistanis was also virtually the same (16%), according to a recent Pew Research survey. On the other hand, support for Pakistani-US cooperation in fighting terrorism is actually higher in 2009 than it was before the intensified drone campaign began.
The real question here is whether or not drone strikes are indeed causing so much anger and outrage that they’re driving significant numbers of Pakistanis to support the Taliban and Al Qaeda. There is no evidence to support that claim — in fact, the numbers are moving in the opposite direction.
A Pew Research poll in August 2009 found that Al-Qaeda’s favorability rating has dropped to just 9% among Pakistanis. The Taliban’s approval has dropped to 10%. Even better, young Pakistanis are even less likely than older Pakistanis to support Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda. The IRI poll I mentioned above found that opposition to “a peace deal with extremists” increased by 32% in a single year. Another poll from June 2009 found that 81% of Pakistanis now see the Taliban and other extremist groups as a “critical threat” to their country.
The shift in Pakistani public opinion is undoubtedly due to the Taliban-Al Qaeda decision to conduct more attacks and suicide bombings inside Pakistan. But despite the (understandable and prudent) worry that even the “perception” of civilian casualties from drone strikes will create a backlash among the Pakistani population and drive them into the arms of extremists, there’s just no evidence that’s happened.