You Say Pakistanis All Hate the Drone War? Prove It

According to the latest Pew research, only a slim majority of them are aware it even exists.

RTR2MDGR-615.jpgReuters

Observers of Pakistani politics say Pakistanis universally loathe the American drone strikes against Islamist militants in Pakistan's tribal belt. The view is based on anecdotal accounts of Pakistanis, but not the ones most affected by the strikes who live in the tribal areas where the drones fly. Most of these informants have no personal knowledge of the tribal areas and the political situation that prevails there. Despite these limitations, observers such as Murtaza Haider confidently avow that " if there is a consensus in Pakistan on any one matter, it is the unanimous opposition to the American drone strikes on Pakistan's territory ."

This conventional wisdom is wrong. Yes, drone strikes are not very popular among a large section of Pakistani society. But Pakistanis are not united in opposition to drone strikes. In fact, many Pakistanis support the drone strikes. This suggests that there is room for the United States to engage in a public diplomacy campaign to win over more Pakistanis to the idea that drone strikes are not the bringers of carnage that is so often portrayed in the Urdu-language media in Pakistan if the United States could be persuaded to bring this worst-kept secret out of the closet and into embassy briefings in Islamabad.

Writers critical of the drone program have mobilized various public opinion polls to buttress their claims, notably those conducted by the Pew Research Center as a part of its Global Attitudes Project. Pew asks Pakistanis whether they believe that the drone strikes are conducted with consent of the Pakistani government and whether they believe the strikes kill civilians in large numbers, among other sensitive topics. Drone opponents have used the responses as evidence that the program is being forced on Pakistanis by the United States, which has decided to engage in these extrajudicial killings as the way to best conduct its own war against Islamist militants who are ensconced in Pakistan's tribal areas. Pew's 2010 report on the drone war declared: "There is little support for U.S. drone strikes against extremist leaders -- those who are aware of those attacks generally say they are not necessary, and overwhelmingly they believe that the strikes kill too many civilians." Drone foes have seized upon these and subsequent survey results and marshaled them as iron-class proof that Washington's drone program faces a wall of Pakistani public opposition. Fortifying opinion with data is a welcome thing. Unfortunately, drone critics have been highly selective in their use of the data, with a tendency to rely on survey answers that cast Pakistani opinion as being overwhelmingly hostile to drones. When one examines all of the data gathered by Pew on drones in Pakistan, a very different and much more complex picture emerges about Pakistani attitudes toward various aspects of the American drone program. A more detailed look at the data suggests that that even while some Pakistanis think drones kill too many innocent Pakistanis, they are still necessary.

The Landscape of Pakistani Opinion

To get a more complete understanding of Pakistani public opinion, we studied the full range of answers related to drones from the 2010 Pew Global Attitudes Project survey, looking at the respondent-level data. Public commentary has been based upon selective stories about misleading tabulations. For example, a large majority of Pakistanis indicated that the drone strikes killed too many innocents. Drone opponents use this and other questions to link collateral damage to their claim that drone strikes are unpopular. In fact, most Pakistanis were either unaware of the drone program or declined to answer questions about them in 2010. Only 35 percent of the sample professed knowledge of the drone program -- compared to 43 percent who said they knew nothing. The difference is comprised of persons who chose not to answer the question for whatever reason. Most of the drone-critical commentary based upon these 2010 data does not acknowledge that conclusions are being drawn from a minority of all respondents.

There is not a wall of opposition to drone strikes in Pakistan but a vocal plurality that merely gives that impression.

Data from subsequent Pew surveys show that knowledge of the drone program has grown slightly, as has opposition to it. Spring 2012 data demonstrate that 56 percent of Pakistanis have heard something about the drone program and 21 percent knew nothing about it at all despite the extensive media coverage in Pakistan and beyond. Another 23 percent of respondents declined to say whether they had heard of the drone strikes. Among those who had heard of the program in 2012, 17 percent said that drone strikes are necessary to defend Pakistan from extremist groups (when done in conjunction with the Pakistani government), whereas 44 percent opposed the strikes. While 41 percent who were familiar with the program believe that they are being conducted without their government's approval; 47 percent correctly believe that their government has given its approval for these strikes. Clearly, Pakistani public opinion is not as informed and much less unanimous as commentators often presume. There is not a wall of opposition to drone strikes in Pakistan but a vocal plurality that merely gives that impression. The question arises: who are those Pakistanis that support, or alternatively, oppose America's use of armed drones?

Who Opposes the Drones? Who Supports Them?

To understand why people oppose or support drone strikes in Pakistan, you have to start with their sources of information about drones. Clearly, by the large numbers who are not aware of the drone strikes, many Pakistanis have no information about the program. This is not surprising, given the high illiteracy rate in Pakistan and the lack of access poorer Pakistanis have to television and the Internet. In fact, in a statistical analysis we did on Pakistani attitudes toward the drone strikes, we found that the people who were more likely to know about drone strikes in Pakistan were male, more educated, and had access to the Internet. So that tells us something about who at least is knowledgeable about the drone program. This is a fundamental issue that all public commentary has ignored: it is not random who does or does not know about the program. In short, there are important selection biases in the data. This is in addition to the more general problem with Pew's data on Pakistan that it is overwhelmingly urban.

Presented by

C. Christine Fair, Karl C. Kaltenthaler & William J. Miller

Christine Fair is an assistant professor at Georgetown University. Karl Kaltenthaler is a professor of political science at the University of Akron. William J. Miller is an assistant professor of public administration at Flagler College.

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