Christine Fair, an American academic, supports the drone warfare because it keeps the remotely-based pilots safe. “At the end of the day if the drone goes down, the pilot still goes home for dinner,” she recently told the BBC.
The Washington-based academic argued that the drones were here to stay because they allowed the US to “be more risk acceptant” knowing that the drones dropping bombs in Pakistan are being piloted from thousands of miles away.
The Obama administration and several American academics have taken upon themselves to defend the illegal and amoral drone warfare against Pakistan. Yet, an overwhelming majority of legal experts agree that the use of drones to kill militants, let alone civilians, is illegal. No country, irrespective of its economic or military clout, is permitted to wage wars in secret. Given that the drone warfare against Pakistan could not be justified on legal grounds, it is therefore interesting to see academics justifying the use of drones on the grounds that pilots will be safely home for dinner, even if their drones were to crash in Waziristan.
In the same interview, Professor Fair mentions her discomfort with the deaths caused by the drones. “I don’t like that my country is in the business of extra-judicial killings,” she said. This is one heck of a lame statement. I don’t “like” being served lukewarm tea. But when it comes to extra-judicial killings, I am enraged.
TV interviews often present out of context quotes. It is possible that Professor Fair’s comments were taken out of context. To ensure that I comment instead on well-contextualised arguments, I have chosen to review a recent unpublished paper by Professor Fair and two co-authors in which they argue that 40 per cent of Pakistanis, who are aware of the drone strikes, support America’s drone warfare.
Had this been a paper submitted by graduate students in my research methods course, it would have certainly received a failing grade. Setting aside the paper’s academic shortcomings, anyone familiar with the widespread anger and disgust against the drone attacks would be surprised with the finding that 40 per cent Pakistanis support drone warfare. One would obviously be curious to determine how the learned authors reached this and other conclusions, especially when the same survey has consistently shown that 93 per cent or more Pakistanis consider drones a bad thing.
“The overview of the Pakistani attitudes toward drone strikes shows that most Pakistanis (at least 43 per cent) are unaware of the drone strikes in Fata. Of those who are aware and have an opinion, Pakistanis oppose drone strikes by a 60-40 per cent margin … We sought to explain why some Pakistanis oppose the drone strikes, while others do not. We argued that the primary reason driving opposition to the drone strikes was the negative elite discourse in the popular media. Since the average Pakistani depends on the popular Urdu media for information on the drone strikes, they are fed a steady diet of negative stories about the drone strikes.”
Bud-Tameez, Urdu Medium
Professor Fair and her colleagues argued that because the Urdu print and electronic media are overwhelmingly against the drone strikes, hence those who consume news in Urdu are influenced by the biased media. On the other hand, the ‘enlightened’ readers of English news are exposed to pro-drone arguments; hence they are more sympathetic to drone strikes. And lastly, 43 per cent of Pakistanis are simply ignorant of drone strikes.
Since I have access to the same data set, which I have made publically available, I believe that their conclusions and the underlying logic are both flawed.
Let me first address the argument that somehow there is a healthy support for pro-drone sentiments in the English press in Pakistan. Professor Fair and colleagues mention fewer than 10 op-eds, published primarily in The Daily Times, by writers residing abroad that could be interpreted as offering, at best, a tacit support for drone strikes in Pakistan. The reality is that there are hardly any pro-drone columnists in Pakistan who write in English, Urdu, or in other regional languages. In fact, if there is a consensus in Pakistan on any one matter, it is the unanimous opposition to American drone strikes on Pakistan’s territory.
At the same time, I fail to understand how fewer than a dozen op-eds sympathetic to drones out of literally thousands of opinion pieces published in Pakistan are able to sway the opinion of 40 per cent of Pakistanis. Those must be some very persuasive columnists capable of such influence on their readers.
Since I have been a reporter with The Frontier Post and an editorial assistant with The News in Islamabad, I can explain why it is not possible for the English press in Pakistan to influence 40 per cent of Pakistanis. I would argue that the combined print-run of all English dailies in Pakistan is likely to be less than the circulation of a single major Urdu daily in Karachi alone. Given the relatively small circulation of English newspapers and the fact that most Pakistanis do not even subscribe to newspapers in the first place, the English news-media certainly cannot influence 40 per cent of Pakistanis.