A Problematic Study of Drone Strikes in Pakistan (Updated)

A Problematic Study of Drone Strikes in Pakistan (Updated)

Lawfare reports today on a study published in Political Science Quarterly about how ordinary Pakistanis view US drone strikes in their country. According to the post, the study “[c]hallenge[s] the conventional wisdom” that there is “deep opposition” among Pakistanis to drone strikes and that “the associated anger [i]s a major source of the country’s rampant anti-Americanism.”

I don’t have access to the study itself, but the polling questions quoted in the Lawfare post seem seriously flawed. Here are the three primary questions about drone strikes:

How much, if anything, have you heard about the drone attacks that target leaders of extremist groups – a lot, little, or nothing at all?

Please tell me whether you support or oppose the United States conducting drone attacks in conjunction with the Pakistani government against the leaders of extremist groups.

Now I’m going to ask you a list of things that the United States might do to combat extremist groups in Pakistan. For each one, please tell me whether you would support or oppose it. [The respondent is then offered]: Conducting drone attacks in conjunction with the Pakistani government against leaders of extremist groups. 

There are two significant problems with these questions. First, it seems like a major stretch to describe the US drone program in Pakistan as being carried out “in conjunction with the Pakistani government” — a formulation that implies that Pakistan and the US are working together. I accept reports that say Pakistan has tacitly or secretly endorsed the US drone program. But the Pakistani government’s public position has always been that the drone program is being conducted without its consent. The “in conjunction with” language is thus seriously misleading — especially given that the ordinary Pakistani will likely be far more familiar with the government’s public position than with the private one revealed in secret cables. Indeed, the second and third questions could easily be interpreted to be asking a hypothetical question (“would you like drone strikes more if they were conducted in conjunction with your government?”), instead of as an assertion of a past and present state of affairs.

The second problem, however, is even more serious. All three questions assert — and assume — that drone strikes in Pakistan target “leaders of extremist groups.” But that is almost certainly not the case. Here, for example, is what the Stanford/NYU “Living Under Drones” report says:

National security analysts—and the White House itself— have found that the vast majority of those killed in drone strikes in Pakistan have been low-level alleged militants. Based on conversations with unnamed US officials, a Reuters journalist reported in 2010 that of the 500 “militants” the CIA believed it had killed since 2008, only 14 were “top-tier militant targets,” and 25 were “mid-to-high- level organizers” of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or other hostile groups. His analysis found that “the C.I.A. [had] killed around 12 times more low-level fighters than mid-to-high- level” during that same period. More recently, Peter Bergen and Megan Braun of the New America Foundation reported that fewer than 13% of drone strikes carried out under Obama have killed a “militant leader.” Bergen and Braun also reported that since 2004, some 49 “militant leaders” have been killed in drone strikes, constituting “2% of all drone-related fatalities.”

Unless all of these reports are incorrect, the US drone program in Pakistan has never focused on “leaders of extremist groups.” It is thus extremely misleading for the study to ask ordinary Pakistanis whether they support drones strikes that target such leaders. Would the results be the same if the study had asked participants whether they “supported or opposed the United States conducting drone attacks against low-level fighters believed to be members of extremist groups”? I doubt it.

It is a truism of the polling business that poll results are only as good as the questions participants are asked. In the case of the drone study reported in Lawfare, there is reason to be skeptical of both the questions and the answers.

UPDATE: After an email exchange with one of the authors, I think it’s only fair to acknowledge that the questions were formulated and asked by Pew, not by the research team. That said, I still question how useful the answers are, given the problems discussed above.

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you make some good points regarding the ambiguity in questions and what questions you might have asked, but the bottom line is that there are answers to the questions that were asked. With respect to the coop. of Pakistan, if the majority of respondents were yes, they either assume or prefer that Pakistan’s govt. coop., and so? with coop., they prefer the drone targeting of leaders?
And with respect to targeting of leaders as opposed to low level fighters, and so? They prefer the targeting of leaders? and we don’t know what they would prefer if a diff. Q was asked? and so?


Considering the high number of civilians killed, 100% regardless of whether they are characterized as extremist leaders or not, and which includes a number of journalists, I find it hard to understand why this drone policy is not more accurately seen as Phoenix Program redux. Just as the Phoenix Program, it would seem to be targeting civilians making up the “infrastructure” of the society and culture that the so-called “extremists” operate out of. Of course, one would have to admit then that the U.S. flagrantly commits war crimes.


Todd: under the laws of war a civilian who is a direct participant in hostilities (DPH) (e.g., in Afghanistan, traveling in and out or giving orders w/in Pakistan, etc.) is targetable unless the person is wounded and incapacitated or has surrendered. Under the law of self-defense, persons who are direct participants in ongooing armed attacks (DPAA) are also targetable. And the ICRC would permit the targeting of persons who are CCF.
However, the principles of distinction and proportionality must be followed. “Indiscriminate” killing is a war crime but “incidental” or “collateral” killing is not.