US acknowledgment of Predator program unlikely to alter Pakistani perceptions


Al Jazeera‘s Gregg Carlstrom has written a thoughtful piece on the accuracy — and perception of accuracy — of US drone strikes in Pakistan. Carlstrom points out that research studies on the number of civilians killed in drone attacks vary widely, noting that while some Pakistani surveys have claimed that more than 700 civilians have been killed, most Western analyses (including The Long War Journal‘s research) have put the figure much lower.

Carlstrom writes that “it may not matter whether or not [the] more optimistic figures are accurate, because they will do little to change Pakistani public opinion,” citing polling data from Pakistan that shows the vast majority of Pakistanis are opposed to the strikes.

Taken as a whole, it is true that Pakistanis overwhelmingly oppose the strikes. However, those living in the tribal areas – i.e., those actually affected by the strikes — have a much more favorable view. In those areas, 52% believe that the drone strikes are accurate, 55% do not think they create “fear or terror in the population,” 58% do not believe they increase anti-American sentiment, and 60% think they inflict damage on militant groups in the area.

Analysts such as CNAS’s Andrew Exum have argued that the reality of how many civilians are killed in US drone strikes is irrelevant. “I do not care how many civilians drone strikes actually kill,” Exum wrote. “I care only about how many civilians Pakistanis think drone strikes kill.”

Exum and others, such as Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann of The New America Foundation, have argued for a more transparent drone strike program, acknowledged publicly by the US government and run by the military rather than the CIA. Their position was strengthened in recent days with the release of a United Nations report that also recommended the program be transferred to the US military in order to increase accountability.

The argument, as laid out by Carlstrom, is as follows:

What is more, because the drone programme is officially secret, there is little that policymakers can do to shift Pakistani public opinion. Even if the reports of civilian casualties are inflated, the US government cannot offer evidence to correct those reports – because doing so would reveal the programme’s existence.

Bergen and Tiedemann claim that “acknowledging the drone program would also help…improve our profile in the region by providing an excellent example of the deepening United States-Pakistan strategic partnership.”

I understand and accept the argument about the importance of Pakistani public opinion regarding the drone strikes. But I fail to see the logic in the proposed remedy. Essentially, the argument is that to win the war for Pakistani public opinion, the US government needs to publicly acknowledge the strikes and transfer control to the US military. But why is there any reason to believe that these measures would improve the Pakistani public’s opinion of the strikes?

A 2009 Pew Research poll found that only 16% of Pakistanis had a favorable view of the United States. Another Gallup poll commissioned by Al Jazeera last year found that a large majority of Pakistanis (59%) believed the United States was the greatest threat to Pakistan’s security. An International Republican Institute poll from 2009 found that 77% of Pakistanis were opposed to US military action in Pakistan’s tribal areas. A poll in 2009 also found that 93% of Pakistanis believed that Obama was “seeking to impose American culture on the Islamic world,” and 90% agreed with the notion that Obama “wanted to weaken and divide the Muslim world.” You get the idea.

Put plainly, the Pakistani public does not trust the United States government. It seems highly unlikely that those attitudes will change if the US military were to acknowledge full, transparent, and accountable responsibility for drone strikes. If empirical data showing low civilian casualties from drone strikes has had no effect thus far, then why would that data be more credible coming from the US government — one of the most unpopular and least trusted institutions in the minds of Pakistanis?

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  • I see says:

    It matters naught “Who” at this point, controls the Drone Program at this point anymore. We are past that, perhaps in the next, engagement.
    It will be “Percieved” or “thought of” by the Pakistani public and it’s “Detractors” as just being a “Cover” for “The Company”[CIA]
    Stay the Course, Stay on Point, Eye’s on the Prize.

  • ds says:

    While I have great respect for Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, I agree with you Bill (also have great respect for you as well and enjoy your blog). Another point that I would add to yours about maintaining the status quo with the drones in Pakistan is that shifting it to the military and having the US acknowledge it would remove the ability of Pakistani politicians to publicly condemn the program. I could see a counterargument saying that everybody knows their condemnation is BS, however, each individual politician can maintain that he or she is not one of those giving tacit approval and however thin this veil is, I do think it has some value and makes it harder for the Pakistani public to get angry with individual politicians over the policy.

  • BraddS says:

    Great, so the critics want a transparent drone program why? So we can endlessly debate it on CNN and Fox News, effectively paralyzing the program???

  • T Ruth says:

    “Put plainly, the Pakistani public does not trust the United States government.”
    That may be so but as long as they are your ally, you need to keep communicating with them.
    Its a pretty weird situation where the Paq govt has to deceive its own people and not be talking about it. The Paq people should’ve been celebrating Baitullah Mehsuds death but for an environment of constructive communication.
    Presently, leaders on both sides are missing a trick in influencing public opinion. For Obama to go to Cairo and deliver speeches and not follow through on engaging Muslim constituents meaningfully is disingenous, adding to the mistrust of the US.
    In reality the cultural gap is so wide and Americans so self-important, self-righteous and self-serving, they haven’t been able to understand the much more level India after decades, however are they going to engage the clever and cunning Paqistan authentically?
    Still, the US is fortunate to have a bunch of Indians who are cross-cultural Americans engaged in academia to nuclear physicists like Muthuswamy who visits here (actually i’d quite like to hear from him). The Obama Admin would do well to pick a few brains like him and meld a South Asian perspective.

  • KnightHawk says:

    All good points sir. 🙂

  • ArneFufkin says:

    Well, to be honest, this American has a pretty dim view of Pakistan at this juncture.
    Step up, or shut up.

  • Hi Ruth
    Thanks for being my campaign manager!
    Turning to the matter at hand, I too agree that publicly acknowledging our predator program doesn’t advance our interests as Peter Bergen, Ms. Tiedemann and Andrew Exum have claimed.

  • T Ruth says:

    Arne this sounds like the outcome of a 40-yr or more, co-dependent, bad marriage.
    Nothing personal about it. In fact i empathise.
    Its actually quite bizarre what a riddled relationship the US and Pakistan share, yet, you are supposed to be key allies with a common adversary, in a crisis. And the lack of a shared understanding is apparent to the whole world. When one acts out of confusion, the result must be more confusion.

  • Solomon2 says:

    “”I do not care how many civilians drone strikes actually kill,”

  • Spooky says:

    The people who have to “step up” are not the same as those who are complaining. The politicians are parroting the view of the people on that.
    That said, I also think shifting the program from CIA to the Army is like moving the deck chairs on the Titanic.
    What needs to be done is make drone tech better and get to the point of having small enough missiles to kill one guy in a crowd. Sci-fi at the moment, I’m sure, but certainly possible in the realm of reality at some point. The less civillian deaths, the less to complain about apart from the colleagues of the terrorist in question.
    In the meantime, we gotta win the hearts and minds of the people, which is NOT the same as oiling the gears of the Pakistan government, which is what we’re doing now. Look into the Pashtun mentality, the underlying reasons why they are fighting. Religion is just the rallying call.
    It might do us well to support Afghanistan’s claim to Pakistani lands, which is primarily a Pashtun concern. It’d piss off the Pak government, but what do we really have to lose, considering how hard it is just to get them to cooperate. If they try anything stupid, that gives us the justification to go in harder.

  • Render says:

    Nothing will change until US troops are in Quetta and or Miram Shah.
    Fighting the enemy amongst the population of Afghanistan is meeting the enemy on ground of his own choosing.
    See Sherman severing his own supply lines prior to beginning his March to the Sea.

  • T Ruth says:

    Muthuswamy, thanks for your offer but i’m not available to join anyone’s “campaign”.
    While i can see Spooky’s deckchairs on the Titanic logic, if we should discuss this nevertheless, i’m really not sure who’s fooling who.
    Spooky, i agree with you also that a game-changer approach is required.


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