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Are drone strikes making more enemies in Pakistan?



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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.



READER COMMENTS: "Are drone strikes making more enemies in Pakistan?"

Posted by exhelodrvr at October 23, 2009 6:00 PM ET:

I don't buy the "50 civilians per terrorist leader from drone strikes" ratio.

If that ratio is true, then all the reporting on the strikes, including on this website, has been wildly inaccurate.

Posted by Mr T at October 23, 2009 6:28 PM ET:

"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."

Replace the word "drone" above with "suicide bomber".

Where is the correlation between families of non combatants killed by the Taliban AQ being alienated and desiring revenge? I don't have stats but cutting the heads off tribal leaders and displaying their bodies in the streets with warnings they will kill anybody who tries to stop them should be alienating these people also. There are probably more noncombatents killed by the Taliban than by the US. So where are the recruits against the militants?

Sounds like selective outrage to me which means they are not outraged because of the deaths but because it is the hated US or they are not outraged but fearful of the Taliban and say what they need to say. Either way shoots holes in their theory.

Readers of the Long War Journal know when to throw the bs flag.

Posted by DANNY at October 23, 2009 8:01 PM ET:

America tries real hard to not target civilians, to say different is to lie. Those who support the terrorist by feeding them encouraging them and not moving away from them and rejecting their presence are not what I would call civilians. Consider Hamas and the people who elected these monsters, are they not supporting a terror fighting force? I am sure there a lot's of friends of Taliban (although not fighters) who get themselves killed. So what. You dance with the devil you get burned. Those not enthralled in Jihad move the hell away from those who are. Could we expect a different perspective published by NYT than what we got? can you tell I don't read em?

Posted by Adnan R. Khan at October 23, 2009 11:58 PM ET:

Another element in the shifting perceptions: the Pakistani media's focus has changed this past year. There is a greater emphasis now on the dangers the Taliban pose to the Pakistani nation. Coverage of the U.S. has tended to focus more on abstract and perhaps intellectual issues like the Kerry-Lugar bill, which incites less of an emotional response from Pakistanis. Drone strikes are not making the front page anymore.

Posted by KW64 at October 24, 2009 11:17 AM ET:

Given the move of the Pakistani public opinion against the Taliban and Al Queda due to their attacks on the people of Pakistan, and given the danger that Pakistani military moves against their sanctuaries prompted by these attacks presents to the insurgents, it is hard to understand their motives in continuing these attacks against Pakistani interests.

This foolish policy on their part may yet retrieve the situation in the area to our favor if we hang in long enough.

Posted by Adnan R. Khan at October 24, 2009 11:47 PM ET:

In response to Mr. T's post: There is a huge backlash against the Taliban in Pakistan. I wrote about it recently - http://www2.macleans.ca/2009/09/24/the-dirtiest-war/. Revenge killings in Swat have spiraled out of control. The rise of anti-Taliban tribal militias is a worrying development. Pashtun society in Pakistan is shattered. When we talk about a civil war in Pakistan, what we're really talking about is an ethnic civil war among Pashtuns. Their tribal system is in ruins, neighbours are killing neighbours. This is widely unreported in western mainstream media but it is the most dangerous development in Pakistan. A war like this is extremely difficult to stop.