-Photo Illustration by Faraz Aamer Khan
-Photo Illustration by Faraz Aamer Khan

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 To ensure that I comment instead on well-contextualised arguments, I have chosen to review a recent unpublished paper by Professor Fair and two co-authors in which they argue that 40 per cent of Pakistanis, who are aware of the drone strikes, support America’s drone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.

Using the publically available 2010 data from Pew Global Attitudes Project, the authors analysed the 2,000 responses from Pakistan and concluded the following:

“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.

And what about the fact that the Urdu TV channels command all TV viewership in Pakistan. The same columnists who write in either English or Urdu moonlight as talk show hosts where drones have yet to find a sympathetic corner.

Lost and found in translation

Professor Fair and colleagues conclude that “most Pakistanis are not aware of the drone campaign, as evidenced by the Pew data.” I believe the problem lies with the survey questionnaire and the authors’ gullibility who took the responses at face value. The Pew survey asked respondents the following: How much, if anything, have you heard about drone attacks that target leaders of extremist groups — a lot, little, or nothing at all? For Pakistani respondents, this is a convoluted question, which inquires about the extent of specific knowledge pertaining to attacks that target leaders of extremist groups.

Truthfully, even I don’t know anything about the drone attacks that target leaders of extremist groups. The US and Pakistan’s governments are tightlipped about drone operations and conjecture is not sufficient for me to say a lot or little about specific attacks. However, this also does not imply that I and millions of Pakistanis are ignorant of the violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and the deaths of civilians, including children, caused by the drone attacks.

Do 40 per cent of Pakistanis favour drone attacks?

The long-winded question by the Pew Global Attitudes Project and the not so careful interpretation by the authors are partly to blame for the erroneous conclusion that 40 per cent of Pakistanis who are aware of the drone strikes favour them. In the three-part question, the interviewer asks the respondent the following:

“Now I’m going to read you a list of things the United States might do to combat extremist groups in Pakistan. For each one, please tell me whether you would support or oppose it.

a. Providing financial and humanitarian aid to areas where extremist groups operate b. Providing intelligence and logistical support to Pakistani troops fighting extremist groups c. Conducting drone attacks in conjunction with the Pakistani government against leaders of extremist groups.

1 Support 2 Oppose 8 Don’t know 9 Refused “

By the time the respondent is asked the third part of the same question, the US is no longer mentioned and the question sounds more like the Pakistani government conducting the drone strikes. Based on other answers received in the same survey, I am of the view that the respondents were confused between the Pakistani and the US governments using the drones. I believe that those who say they would support drones thought they answered the question about Pakistani government conducting the drone attacks. The true support for drone warfare in Pakistan will only be gauged from the question where the respondents are asked if they would support the American drone strikes against the wishes of the Pakistani government.

Even with the poorly worded question, only 17 per cent of the respondents in 2012 indicated that they would support drone attacks, provided the government of Pakistan is involved in the operations. This is significantly different from what Professor Fair and her colleagues have claimed when they stated, “that a sizeable number of Pakistanis who know about the drones support their use.”

And whereas, one in three Pakistanis believed in 2010 that drones were necessary to defend Pakistan against extremist groups, by 2012 only one in five believed the same, suggesting that regardless of how one measures the support for drones in Pakistan, it is rather non-existent or is collapsing rapidly.

An F for the effort

Why would I assign a failing grade to this paper? Even if one overlooks the serious shortcomings I have mentioned so far or ignore the mis-specifications in the statistical analysis (click here for details), one cannot overlook the fact that the authors fail to include any empirical evidence in support of their thesis statement that “the primary reason driving opposition to the drone strikes was the negative elite discourse in the popular media.” Read their paper and you will be hard-pressed to find any empirical evidence in support of their thesis statement.

The empirical evidence, as per Pew data from 2010, in fact states the opposite. Those Pakistanis who thought of media having a good influence supported drone strikes more than those who thought of media having a bad influence.

The fact remains that drone strikes do not have any support in Pakistan’s civil society or amongst the members of armed forces. Speaking with the BBC in the same documentary, Brigadier Hassan Hayat said, “There is no public acceptance, and there is no military acceptance of the drones. So it is very difficult to say that they [the Americans] are doing the right thing because the sentiments [here] are against the drones.”

One should not oppose the drone strikes merely because there is no evidence of the drones’ efficacy in stemming the tide of violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Even if the drones were able to control violence, one should oppose drone attacks on the principle that wars cannot, and should not, be waged in secret.


Murtaza Haider, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of research and graduate programs at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. He can be reached by email at murtaza.haider@ryerson.ca

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.



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