Drone Strikes and Pakistani Public Opinion

According to the Pew Global Attitude Survey: “Pakistanis give the U.S. its lowest ratings among the 22 nations included in the Spring 2010 Pew Global Attitudes survey – in all three countries, only 17% have a favorable view of the U.S. Roughly six-in-ten (59%) of Pakistanis describe the U.S. as an enemy, while just 11% say it is a partner. And President Barack Obama is unpopular – only 8% of Pakistanis express confidence that he will do the right thing in world affairs, his lowest rating among the 22 nations.”14

Critique: A Worldwide Student Journal of Politics:

Refusal to publicly acknowledge the use of drones by the United States government played a significant role in shaping negative public opinion in Pakistan. What is truly sinister in the minds of many Pakistanis, however, is the outright denial on the part of the Obama administration of the very existence of drone strikes in Pakistan. The former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the following: “When I went through the process of becoming press secretary, one of the first things they told me was, ‘You’re not even to acknowledge the drone program. You’re not even to discuss that it exists’…here’s what’s inherently crazy about that proposition: You’re being asked a question based on reporting of a program that exists. So you’re the official government spokesperson acting as if the entire program doesn’t exist – pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” This is clear evidence, from the perspective of the average Pakistani citizen and indeed any global observer, that the United States government did not deem the program ‘safe’ enough to be discussed publicly, and undermines any confidence Pakistanis may have had on the ‘good intentions’ of those in Washington concerning drone strikes. As drone strikes and their complicated legal and moral implications have slowly crept onto the landscape of American political discourse with the vetting of John Brennan as the next director of the C.I.A., debates have started on a court to vet drone strikes. According to a New York Times article dated February 6 2013 by Scott Shane, a court similar to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court could potentially be used to justify the net gain and worth of a drone strike against the potential for further destabilization the strike may cause: “…it is time to consider how to forge a new, trustworthy, and transparent system to govern lethal counterterrorism operations.”15

Pakistani ruling elite, particularly the military, is one of the beneficiaries of U.S. government’s public denial of the use of drones. The Pakistani Army has benefited by the use of American drones in its fight against the TTP but by not acknowledging its cooperation with the U.S. in the drone operations the Pakistani Army has shifted all the blame to the U.S. As the following graph shows there is a possibility that greater transparency and publicly acknowledged cooperation by American and Pakistani government can shift, to some degree, the public opinion on the use of drones. But it is also noteworthy that the public is less supportive in 2013 of such cooperation than they were in 2010.

The fact that the Pakistani government has a tacit, informal understanding with the United States government concerning the use of drones in Pakistan has created greater confusion around the use of drones. As Peter Bergen and Katherine Tideman put it somewhat sarcastically:

For Pakistani politicians, the drone program is a dream come true. They get to posture to their constituents about the perfidious Americans even as they reap the benefits from the U.S. strikes. They are well-aware that neither the Pakistani Army’s ineffective military operations nor the various peace

agreements with the militants have done anything to halt the steady Talibanization of their country, while the U.S. drones are the one surefire way to put significant pressure on the leaders of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. This is called getting to have your chapati and eat it too.16

It was not until 12 February 2009 when Senator Dianne Feinstein, Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said “‘as I understand it, these (drones) are flown out of a Pakistani base,’ that there was the first public acknowledgement that Pakistani government cooperates with the United States.”17 But that revelation did not go very far when it comes to Pakistani government’s acknowledgement of its role in the drone strikes. Other than some discussion in the English language newspapers, the story faded. But as Senator Carl Levine, chair of the Senate Armed Forces Committee rightly pointed out: “For them (the Pakistani government) to look the other way, or to give us the green light privately, and then to attack us publicly leaves us, it seems to me, at a very severe disadvantage and loss with the Pakistani people.”18

Both the Bush and the Obama administration went along with the policy of not publicly acknowledging the drone program or the fact that they were operating with the approval and active

cooperation of the Pakistani government. But in the long run such secrecy resulted in heightened anti-U.S. sentiments and a lost opportunity to more actively shift public opinion towards the U.S. strategic goals in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2009 as the Pakistani Taliban became bolder and took over the valley of Swat the Pakistani public became weary of their goals and tactics. As Williams point out:

They closed girls schools, executed local policemen and those they deemed to be spies or informers, enforced strict sharia law and filmed themselves whipping local females for daring to go outside without male escorts. As a result, a poll carried out in March 2009 by the International Republican Institute found that 74 percent of Pakistanis saw terrorism as a serious problem in Pakistan. The same survey found 69 percent found Taliban and Al Qaeda operating in Pakistan to be a problem.19

But rather than publicly acknowledging the drone campaign against the Taliban, the American and Pakistani governments stayed silent. After several incidents where women and children died as a result of the predator strikes anti-American public opinion in Pakistan was hardened. Since the program is shrouded in secrecy the public understanding regarding how the program works is hazy. For example, some of the Pakistanis I interviewed assumed that drones are used indiscriminately to kill people in FATA. It is not clear to the Pakistani public the extent to which any attempt is made to gather evidence to ensure that only those who are clearly identified as ‘militants’ are targeted.

Fricker and Plaw draw attention to the fact that the increasing frequency of drone strikes against mid-to-lower level Pakistani Taliban, by virtue of them being Pakistani, and many of them relatively unknown, increases public resentment because the public views it as the United States arbitrarily murdering Pakistani civilians. In the Pakistani local media at this time, there was a tendency to fail to distinguish between who is Taliban and who is actually innocent, as exemplified by the condemnation Pakistani Senator Hameedullah Jan Afridi expressed by calling the thirty deaths in an attack on a madrassa in Bajaur agency the deaths of ‘students,’ when the rough translation from Urdu to English of ‘student’ is ‘talib’ which is the name the Taliban have appropriated.

There is much less anger when drone strikes kill well-known militant leaders such as Baitullah Mehsud who notably claimed responsibility for the assassination of one of Pakistan’s beloved leaders, Benazir Bhutto. As Bryn Glyn Williams points out: “Tellingly, when a CIA drone killed Baitullah Mehsud, the notorious head of the Pakistani Taliban who had sent numerous suicide bombers into Pakistani cities, there was no outcry in Pakistan. On the contrary, many Pakistanis celebrated.”20 The fact that the use of drones violates Pakistan’s sovereignty and international law further adds fuel to the fire of anti-American public opinion in Pakistan.
The Pakistani ruling elite understands this well and often takes a public stance that denies the fact that they do cooperate with the United States in drone operations. The recent report by Ben Emmerson, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Counter- Terrorism and Human Rights is a good example of such duplicity on the part of Pakistani government. After a three-day fact finding mission from the 11th to the 13th of March, 2013, Emmerson

concluded that these strikes are being conducted without the approval or consent of the government in Pakistan. According to the report the Pakistani government does not consider its military involvement in FATA and Waziristan to combat militancy as an international or even national military engagement. The Pakistani military, according to Emmerson’s report, sees itself as engaging in law enforcement efforts against radical militants who are attempting to undermine the government in Islamabad. The Pakistani Taliban are in direct opposition to the democratically elected Pakistani government, so from the Pakistani perspective, this is a strictly Pakistani issue. Secondly, these strikes have undermined the safety and wellbeing of the communities they are conducted in. The Maliks or Pashtun tribal elders Emmerson met with discussed with him the fear and uncertainty in these communities when young Pashtun men who are indistinguishable from a member of the Taliban in terms of appearance are being killed while engaged in everyday activities. The death of a close family member or friend through violent means motivates young Pashtun males to take up arms in revenge. The extent to which the Pashtun community in Pakistan has suffered as a result of these drone strikes cannot be overstated, according to Emmerson. He concluded the report by pointing out that:

As a matter of international law the U.S. drone campaign in Pakistan is therefore being conducted without the consent of the elected representatives of the people, or the legitimate Government of the State. It involves the use of force on the territory of another State without its consent and is therefore a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. Pakistan has also been quite clear that it considers the drone campaign to be counterproductive and to be radicalising a whole new generation, and thereby perpetuating the problem of terrorism in the region. Pakistan has called on the U.S. to cease its campaign immediately. In a direct challenge to the suggested legal justification for these strikes, the Government of Pakistan has also made it quite clear during these discussions that any suggestion that it is ‘unwilling or unable’ to combat

terrorism on its own territory is not only wrong, but is an affront to the many Pakistani victims of terrorism who have lost their lives.21

Fricker and Plaw point out that increasing frequency of drone strikes has deepened public resentment against the already unpopular democratically elected government of Asif Ali Zardari. He is viewed by the public as either unable or perhaps unwilling to protect Pakistan’s sovereignty. Consequently, the Pakistani government is deprived of the political capital, will, resources, and authority to be the U.S.’s other end of the ‘pincer’ in trapping the Taliban and al- Qaeda. The deep resentment against drones is supported by my interviews of Pakistani journalists and students in January of 2013. In my interview with a Pakistani Pashtun student studying political science at the Lahore University for Management Sciences, he stated, “The Pashtun community in all parts of South Asia consider themselves one. They like to call Afghanistan the ‘graveyard of empires.'” So in some sense, it would be an intelligent and strategically sound decision to use Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, in areas where the U.S. military is not allowed, like Northern Pakistan – to reduce the potential for unacceptable military and (presumably) civilian casualties. But at what cost to the people who live in these areas? At what cost to the already very tenuous diplomatic relationship between the United States and Pakistan? In my interview with Brigadier Fazal Khan (Retired), a former Infantry Brigadier in the Pakistan Army, he states: “The disadvantages of drone strikes are manifold but the first criticisms Pakistanis have of them is that they are violations of Pakistan’s sovereignty. The Pakistan Army is also having a very difficult time in clearing these objectives on-the- ground. The Pakistan Army has laid down a maximum number of their lives. They have sacrificed hundreds and hundreds of soldiers and their officers fighting this war. So, it is a very difficult ballgame. But what the Pakistan Army has done well [in FATA and Waziristan] is get the popular support of the masses. They have been very careful to minimize collateral damage in the area – and wherever they have gone they have been successful in eliminating terrorists, avoided killing innocents and re-establishing normal life by maintaining civil society and keeping schools open, as just two examples.”

Rohde contends that the public opinion of the strikes in the country in which they are used, Pakistan, is both incredibly important, and when negative, very damaging to U.S. geopolitical goals there. “Under Obama, drone strikes have become too frequent, too unilateral, and much too associated with the heavy-handed use of American power.”22 I agree with Rohde’s point that if the Obama administration continues these unilateral covert operations in Pakistan, public resentment will boil over, and the administration will have passed the point of no return. These strikes do nothing to ‘help local leaders marginalize militants,’ either, which is a vital process that allows fundamentalism to be stopped in its tracks by the people most directly affected by it.

The U.S. population are themselves ambivalent, ignorant of or indifferent towards the sufferings of the average Pakistani drone strike victim, and the political gain that this ambivalence facilitates is not worth the further destabilization of the region. This gives a pass to the Obama administration in terms of its accounting for its drone program in FATA to the American public. Despite claims made by other drone warfare experts, “Drone Warfare” contends that through ‘purposeful retaliation,’ in the example of the aftermath of the killing of Beitullah Mehsud, drones motivate terrorists to retaliate against

attacks despite having their organization ‘decapitated.’ The ‘accidental guerilla’ thesis, mentioned earlier, posits that without any active political or infrastructural engagement on the part of the U.S. in FATA and Waziristan, while at the same time carrying out drone attacks, the United States is making it easier for those local populations to retaliate against what they perceive as extrajudicial murder. Since the U.S. isn’t militarily engaged in Pakistan, most of these ‘accidental guerillas’ will cross the porous border into Afghanistan to engage the U.S. in retaliation.

The counterinsurgency doctrine, used first in Iraq, is to “diminish the political, social, and economic conditions that create and bolster the armed resistance seen as insurgency. The rules governing the use of force in U.S. counterinsurgency theory have been designed to reduce deaths generally and thus prevent creating new insurgents”23 (127). In doing so, the plan is, the U.S. will ensure Afghanistan a stable, transparent democracy where people can air their grievances legitimately and without fear for the consequences. The goal of drone strikes, that of disrupting the workings of terrorist organizations and their members in Pakistan undermines the goals in Afghanistan to reduce deaths, as the two Pashtun populations (Pakistani and Afghan) share a common ethnic, linguistic and geographical heritage. The lack of accountability that the covert nature of drone strikes affords the U.S. government makes it impossible to assuage the fear and anger that these attacks have produced, as the U.S. doesn’t claim responsibility of “regularly, but unpredictably, unleashing violence from the skies. However, if and when a high-value target is killed, the death is celebrated in Western media”24 (127).

12 Rohde, David. “The Obama Doctrine How the President’s Drone War Is Backfiring.”Foreign Policy. Mar. 2012. Web. 28 Jan. 2013. (p. 4)
13 Abbas, Hassan, “Are Drone Strikes Killing Terrorists or Creating Them?” http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/03/are-drone- strikes-killing-terrorists-or-creating-them/274499/
14 Pew Research Center, “Global Attitude Project,” July, 2010.
http://www.pewglobal.org/files/pdf/Pew-Global-Attitudes-2010-Pakistan- Report.pdf (p. 2)
15 Shane, Scott. “Debating a Court to Vet Drone Strikes.” New York Times. The New York Times Company, 8 Feb. 2013. Web. 1 Mar. 2013.
16 Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedeman, “The Drone War. Are Predators Our Best Weapon or Worst Enemy?” New Republic, 3 June 2009.
17 Iqbal, Anwar, “US Official says Drones Using Pakistan Base.” Dawn, 14 February 2009.
18 Williams, Glyn, Brian, “The CIA’s Covert Predator Drone War in Pakistan, 2004–2010: The History of an Assassination Campaign”, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 33:871–892, 2010 (p. 883)
19 Williams, Glyn, Brian, “The CIA’s Covert Predator Drone War in Pakistan, 2004–2010: The History of an Assassination Campaign”, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 33:871–892, 2010 (p. 885)
20 Williams, Glyn, Brian, “The CIA’s Covert Predator Drone War in Pakistan, 2004–2010: The History of an Assassination Campaign”, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 33:871–892, 2010 (p. 885)
21 Bowcott, Owen. “US Drone Strikes in Pakistan ‘carried out without Government’s Consent'” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 15 Mar. 2013. Web. 04 Apr. 2013.
22 Rohde, David. “The Obama Doctrine How the President’s Drone War Is Backfiring.” Foreign Policy. Mar. 2012. Web. 28 Jan. 2013. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/02/27/the_obama_doctrine
23 Hudson, Leila, Colin S. Owens, and Matt Flannes. “Drone Warfare: Blowback from the New American Way of War.” Middle East Policy 18.3 (2011): 122-32.
24 Hudson, Leila, Colin S. Owens, and Matt Flannes. “Drone Warfare: Blowback from the New American Way of War.” Middle East Policy 18.3 (2011): 122-32.






Hassan Masood

Hassan Masood is a Contracts professional with Tetra Tech International Development Services Energy Services group, where he currently implements the $60 million USAID-funded Sustainable Energy for Pakistan (SEP) project. Recipient of the 2013 Pi Sigma Alpha Political Science Honor Society Best Paper Award (undergraduate).

View All Posts By Hassan Masood
Add a Commment

%d bloggers like this: