Why drone blowback in Pakistan is a myth

Updated 22 May 2016


HUMAN rights organisations and even some former US military commanders argue that drone strikes inadvertently increase terrorism by exerting a “blowback” effect. Their logic is simple. Drone strikes kill more innocent civilians than terrorists, which radicalises affected populations and motivates them to join terrorist groups to retaliate against the United States.

The perfect case for testing the blowback effect is Pakistan, where, since 2004, the CIA has launched an estimated 423 strikes, constituting 75 per cent of the agency’s drone strikes worldwide.

The strikes were carried out in the country’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) bordering Afgha­nistan, where Al Qaeda and Taliban militants found a safe haven after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Opinion polls, such as those carried out by the Pew Research Centre, indicate widespread Pakistani anger at drone strikes. Pew’s latest (2014) survey showed that 67 per cent of respondents opposed drone attacks because they kill “too many innocent people”. However, Pew data on drones is deeply misleading as the organisation draws its samples mostly from urban areas not directly impacted by drone strikes.

Nonetheless, in a 2011 survey conducted by a local NGO in Fata, 63 per cent of the respondents thought drone strikes “are never justified”. But when the results are disaggregated, support for drone strikes is the highest in North Waziristan, the Fata agency where the CIA has carried out most of its lethal drone operations, compared to the other six.

Except for a 2012 Associated Press analysis of casualties from 10 of the deadliest drone strikes in North Waziristan, the voice of the local population most affected by drone strikes is often neglected in this contentious debate.

To assess local perceptions of drone strikes, I conducted 147 interviews with adult residents of North Waziristan in the summer and winter of 2015. The study constitutes the largest set of in-depth interviews with people from the district, including maliks, reporters, lawyers, businessmen, rights activists, and heads and members of the local chapters of seven political parties, including the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam and Jamaat-i-Islami (JI).

Broadly speaking, the interview data do not support the blowback thesis. More specifically, the data contradict the presumed local radicalisation effects of drones. In fact, 79 per cent of the respondents endorsed drones.

In sharp contrast to claims about the significant civilian death toll from drone strikes, 64 per cent, including several living in villages close to strike locations, believed that drone strikes accurately targeted militants. And 56 per cent believed drones seldom killed non-militants.

As the Crisis Group and Georgetown’s Christine Fair have noted, most locals prefer drones to the military’s ground and aerial offensives that cause more extensive damage to civilian life and property.

Even local members of the JI and the vehemently anti-drone Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf disputed their national leadership’s claims about the heavy loss of innocent lives as a result of drone strikes. More than two-thirds of respondents said that most of the non-militant civilians who died in drone attacks were known militant sympathisers or collaborators who might already be radicalised. More strikingly, most interviewees believed that the drone campaign decisively broke the back of the Taliban.

Recent studies have also posited a link between drone fatalities and revenge in Fata. When someone dies in a drone strike, the argument goes, their family members are obligated to take revenge in accordance with their ethical code of Pashtunwali. But less than 15 per cent of the respondents supported the revenge thesis.

As many tribal elders stressed to me, militants were motivated by a violent jihadi creed, not Pashtun customs predating Islam. The Taliban have assassinated hundreds of tribal leaders and others on the mere suspicion of spying for the US or the Pakistan military. If anything, the revenge motive should drive people to target the Taliban to avenge the deaths of their loved ones.

The US drone strategy in Pakistan raises serious ethical, legal and mental health concerns. While the Obama administration justifies the use of armed drones as lawful self-defence against Al Qaeda and its affiliates, many legal experts believe that lethal drone strikes in non-traditional battlefields, such as Fata, are impermissible under international law.

And as emphasised in the well-known 2012 Stanford-NYU Law School Clinics study, “Living Under Drones”, and other reports, the traumatising impact of constant drone surveillance on Fata residents cannot be ignored either. Almost one-fourth of the respondents affirmed drones’ negative psychological effects on locals.

Drone warfare in Fata has many problems. But as my interview data clearly suggest, blowback is not one of them. In fact, the data show the opposite: Most respondents support drone strikes.

By arrangement with the Washington Post

The writer is an assistant professor in the College of International Studies at the University of Oklahoma

Published in Dawn, May 22nd, 2016