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 WorldPublicOpinion.org 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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