Since 2001, the United States has used armed drones (or unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs) against Islamist militants in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. Obama administration officials and other proponents believe drones work because they deny terrorists sanctuaries and degrade their ability to plan attacks.
However, human rights organizations and even some former U.S. 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 radicalizes affected populations and motivates them to join terrorist groups to retaliate against the United States. Prominent American counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen and co-author Andrew Exum wrote that “every one of these dead noncombatants represents an alienated family, a new desire for revenge, and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially even as drone strikes have increased.”
The perfect case for testing the blowback effect is Pakistan, where, since 2004, the CIA has launched an estimated 423 strikes, constituting 75 percent of the agency’s drone strikes worldwide. While the drone campaign in Pakistan began under the Bush administration, President Obama sharply escalated it with 128 strikes in 2010 alone. Since 2013, when Obama signaled a shift in counterterrorism away from targeted killings, the drone war has been winding down with sporadic strikes. Secretly endorsed by Pakistani authorities, these 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 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Inhabited by Pashtuns, FATA consists of seven agencies (districts) and six Frontier Regions (FRs). Pakistan still governs FATA under the colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulation, 1901, which deprives locals of their basic legal and political rights but has allowed the military to use the area as a covert staging ground for jihad in Afghanistan.
Drones and public opinion
Opinion polls, such as those carried out by the Pew Research Center since at least 2009, indicate widespread Pakistani anger at drone strikes. Pew’s latest 2014 survey showed that 67 percent of respondents opposed drone attacks because they kill “too many innocent people.” However, Pew data on drones is deeply misleading as the organization draws its samples mostly from areas not directly impacted by drone strikes because the Pakistan military and/or militants limit or deny access to the conflict zone. Nonetheless, in a 2011 survey conducted by a local NGO in FATA, 63 percent 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 (district) 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 that was based on interviews with some 80 villagers, 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 semi-structured interviews with adult (18 years or older) residents of North Waziristan in the summer and winter of 2015. Access to the respondents was made possible by the Pakistani military’s June 2014 offensive against the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) that displaced some 800,000 locals from their homes to the adjoining “settled” districts. While the sample is not statistically representative of the entire population, it constitutes the largest set of in-depth interviews with people from the district, including maliks (tribal elders), reporters, lawyers, businessmen, rights activists, teachers, university students, and last but not least, heads and members of the local chapters of seven political parties, including the Islamist Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam (JUI-Fazlur-Rehman) and the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI).
Broadly speaking, the interview data do not support the blowback thesis. More specifically, the data contradict the presumed local radicalization effects of drones. In fact, 79 percent of the respondents endorsed drones. In sharp contrast to claims about the significant civilian death toll from drone strikes, 64 percent, including several living in villages close to strike locations, believed that drone strikes accurately targeted militants. While many interviewees did specifically point to pre-2013 “signature strikes,” which targeted groups of men based on behavior patterns rather than individual identity, as the cause of occasionally high fatalities, 56 percent believed drones seldom killed non-militants. And as the Crisis Group and Georgetown’s Christine Fair have noted, most locals prefer drones to the Pakistan 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 party Tehrik-e-Insaf (Justice Movement) disputed their national leadership’s claims about the heavy loss of innocent lives as a result of drone strikes. Over two-thirds of respondents said that most of the non-militant civilians who die in drone attacks are known militant sympathizers or collaborators who may already be radicalized. More strikingly, most interviewees believed that the drone campaign decisively broke the back of the Taliban, who had established a reign of intimidation in North Waziristan, contradicting the prevalent view that drone strikes achieve tactical gains by killing replaceable leaders.
Recent studies have also posited a link between drone fatalities and revenge in the 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 percent of the respondents supported the revenge thesis. As many tribal elders stressed to me, militants are motivated by a violent jihadi creed, not Pashtun customs predating Islam. Besides, revenge cannot possibly explain suicide attacks on shopping markets and public parks which invariably kill innocent civilians. And the Taliban have assassinated hundreds of tribal leaders and others on the mere suspicion of spying for the United States or the Pakistan military. If anything, the revenge motive should drive people to target the Taliban to avenge the deaths of their loved ones rather than joining their killers.
The U.S. 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-defense against al-Qaeda and its affiliates, many legal experts believe that lethal drone strikes in non-traditional battlefields, such as the FATA, are impermissible under international law. Morally speaking, targeted homicides by drones reek of the notorious Latin American “death squads” of the 1980s that carried out extrajudicial killings of the suspected enemies of authoritarian regimes. And as emphasized in the well-known 2012 Stanford-NYU Law School Clinics study, “Living Under Drones,” and other reports, the traumatizing impact of constant drone surveillance on FATA residents cannot be ignored either. Fair doubts that mental harm can be attributed solely to drones given multiple sources of emotional distress in the FATA, including military operations and militancy. However, almost one-fourth of the respondents affirmed drones’ negative psychological effects on locals if for no other reason than, as a journalist with extensive experience of reporting from North Waziristan told me, the perception that the “drones are always watching us” and can “strike any time.”
Drone warfare in the 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. This is not to say that America’s drone campaign is “winning hearts and minds,” to borrow that imperious slogan of U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine. Instead, locals approve of drone attacks because they viscerally hate the militants and feel betrayed by their own government. As one university student from the North Waziristan town of Mir Ali pragmatically explained it: “When the government left us at the mercy of the zalim (cruel) Taliban, we used to feel utterly helpless and cower in fear. Since nobody seemed concerned with our plight, the drones were the closest thing to getting your prayers answered.”
Note: This post has been updated to correct the dates of when Obama signaled a sift in counterterrorism; when the pre-“signature strikes” occurred; and to clarify the sample population from the Pew data did not come mostly from urban areas. Additionally, some of the hyperlinks have been changed.
Aqil Shah is the Wick Cary Assistant Professor of South Asian politics in the College of International Studies at the University of Oklahoma and a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.