Women rally against U.S. drone strikes in Pakistani tribal areas in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 2011. (Mohammad Sajjad/AP)

Entering its 16th year, the U.S. drone campaign in Pakistan remains highly controversial. Some scholars and activists have long argued that — on top of their legal and moral issues — the strikes create a strategic “blowback effect” by stoking widespread anger, opposition and resistance in target societies. Yet others have found the opposite, with residents actually supporting the drone attacks compared with other options.

Who is right in this “drone blowback debate?” In fact, both camps are partly right and wrong. This is because each has been looking largely at different populations: those who are directly exposed to the events in question vs. those who are not.

As my research illuminates, such populations tend to form not just different attitudes but, in fact, widely divergent factual beliefs about what is going on in conflict zones.

What previous studies have found

One side of the debate is well represented by the work of Aqil Shah. Shah — a Pakistani scholar at the University of Oklahoma — has found that U.S. drone warfare strikes enjoyed broad public support among the population in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Shah interviewed 147 residents of North Waziristan, the tribal region that has been the target of 71 percent of the 400-plus U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan since 2004. Shah’s study is not alone — other efforts by scholars with deep ties to the tribal areas have made a similar case in recent years. These writers relate how local residents in interviews largely voice support for the strikes, stating they target the “sinners” and not the “innocent.”

However, such findings clash sharply with a vast body of writing arguing just the opposite. Over the last decade and a half, numerous journalists, scholars and activists have written about how U.S. drone warfare in nations like Pakistan — as well as Yemen, Somalia and beyond — has harmed civilians, alienating and radicalizing populations in the target societies. According to this blowback thesis, the strikes and their vast civilian death toll have “created a siege mentality,” spreading hate for the United States in countries such as Pakistan.

 What motivates individuals’ reactions in war zones?

What explains these starkly competing narratives? In a word, motivation. People have different incentives — or motivations — to form accurate beliefs about what is happening depending on their surrounding levels of risk. As many social scientists have documented, individuals often engage in “motivated reasoning” about events around them, forming factual beliefs about their surroundings in ways that reinforce their existing worldviews.

In war zones, this means civilians often form beliefs about the fighting based on what they already think of the actors involved. For example, if the United States perpetrates an attack, and civilians dislike or distrust the United States, they will probably believe the attack was indiscriminate in nature, which matches the motives they already thought the Americans possess.

But not everyone in war zones can afford to let existing biases dictate their beliefs. For those close to the action — who see it and are directly affected by it — motivated reasoning takes a back seat to an “accuracy motive.” Getting it wrong could be a matter of life or death. In these cases, the tendency to form self-serving and biased beliefs is controlled by their need to understand the risks and dangers around them to survive. For civilians who live in an area under regular American bombardment — even if they dislike the United States — there is a powerful incentive for them to know who is being targeted and whether the bombing is indiscriminate.

Opinions about drones depend on proximity to strikes

How does this apply to Pakistan? On the one hand, opponents of the blowback thesis are correct about the reality of drones on the ground and their perception by the local populace in places such as North Waziristan. Despite mistakes, it is by now clear that the U.S. drone campaign in Pakistan has been quite precise and discriminate, particularly compared with the relatively indiscriminate methods used by the Pakistani army and militants in the same areas.

This accuracy and precision is widely recognized in the tribal areas, where understanding the risks posed by drones is “not just some abstract talking point [but] a high-stakes game” of survival. Indeed, one official of the adjacent Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province remarked that “the further away people were from the drone attacks, the more worked up they got about them.” The best local-level econometric studies of the strikes’ impact similarly show that the strikes reduce militant violence and do not generate blowback effects within the tribal areas.

On the other hand, the blowback proponents are also observing real trends in Pakistan and beyond. The tribal areas of Pakistan are only a small slice of the country, with about 2 percent of its population. While the drone campaign may be highly accurate and discriminate on the ground, it is not perceived that way throughout most of Pakistan. On the contrary, pervasive anti-Americanism and intensely anti-drone media coverage have fueled beliefs that drones are indiscriminate death machines, slaughtering innocent women and children in high numbers.

These beliefs — though inaccurate — have very real consequences. They have deepened reservoirs of popular resentment toward the United States in Pakistan, inciting numerous anti-drone protests and riots. This has forced concessions like the closure of U.S. drone bases and NATO supply routes to Afghanistan on Pakistani soil and fueled the rise of more stridently anti-American politicians such as Prime Minister Imran Khan.

While the extent to which any of this has boosted militant recruitment in the country remains unclear, these are important behavioral consequences in the streets and at the ballot box fueled by Pakistani public reactions to the campaign.

All war is local, but not all reactions to it are

Ultimately, both sides of the drone blowback debate capture an important — but incomplete — slice of a complex reality. There has been “blowback,” but not where the strikes actually occur.

This seemingly intractable debate illustrates a deeper feature of modern war zones — the gap between local and nonlocal beliefs about the “facts on the ground” in a dispute. In Pakistan, this gap is profound but hardly unique.

As my co-authors and I have shown, similar dynamics can be seen in contemporary Iraq, where misinformation about the U.S.-led airstrikes against the Islamic State has been widespread, but those who actually lived under the bombing were much less likely to believe it.

To get the truth about what is going on in a conflict zone, ask those who actually experience the events in question. Yet, as we have seen in recent years, untruths matter, too, and can have real consequences among those who do not have such firsthand exposure. Understanding this is crucial to thinking more carefully about how communities are likely to react to events in war.

Daniel Silverman is a postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon University’s Institute for Politics and Strategy and earned his PhD from Ohio State University.