At the Atlantic, an article by three professors was published which sought to examine the claim that “Pakistanis all hate the drone war.” For someone like me this is a useless bit of analysis. Indeed, part of me would go so far as to say it’s actually quite insidious. By exploring a claim that is actually quite tangential to the overall issue (Drone strikes: effective tool/horrendous war crime?) the authors of this article open up the possibility that certain members of their audience will misinterpret the consequences of their findings.
Before I jump into what I find really problematic about the article, let me first make a more esoteric point. Most of our public discourse gets funneled down into binaries. You’re for gun control or against it. For addressing climate change or against it. For abortion or against it. It’s a sad state of affairs, but it’s the reality.Plenty of dissenting and more nuanced voices circle the periphery, getting a chance to make their point every now and then. Sometimes a place like the Atlantic even publishes them. In some cases, the Atlantic even hires them. But all in all, most media outlets reserve most of their time for arguments that fall into the “yes or no” camp.
Drones are no different (from here on keep in mind that I’m using the word “drones” to refer to them holistically, including how they are often used and how decisions to use them are often made). The discourse surrounding them funnels most arguments into pro/con. So there are the paranoid critics who think drones are the first step toward Skynet, and the hawkish armchair intellectuals who delight in how impersonal this new technology has allowed imperial enterprise to become. And so despite the fact that there are much more nuanced arguments surrounding “drones,” the one that exists in the popular consciousness is a simplistic, one-dimensional binary.
As a result, there are certain “popular” claims, which very few people in particular make, but which persist in being considered representative of the hypothetical proponent/hypothetical opponent. One of those claims hanging in the ether is that the Pakistanis loathe drone strikes, and that drones strikes are directly responsible, in part, for destabilizing that country, and for helping supposed terrorist groups boost recruiting. And because this claim is often put forth in association with arguments against drones, it is publicly perceived, by virtue of this association, as being somehow connected, some might think even crucial, to well-reasoned anti-drone positions. Because of how arguments work, and because they are often in some way competitive, and our egos often get involved, it seems to be quite easy for us as human beings to be confused about what parts of the malaise surrounding a discussion are actually central to it.
Many people might confuse rebutting the claim that most Pakistanis hate drone strikes with rebutting the associated claim that drones strikes in Pakistan, as currently carried out at the very least, are wrong (morally, politically, etcetera, etcetera). Of course, they really have very little to do with one another. People who make the claim that most Pakistanis hate and/or live in existential fear of drone strikes make it in response to their opponents claims that drone strikes in parts of Pakistan make us safer. Most proponents of drone strikes have already decided on the much more germane issue of “to drone or not to drone” because they put security above human rights. As a result, opponents have tried to meet them on these same terms, and construct arguments that put security as the metric for determining whose side is right (by virtue of whose side will do more for America’s security).
But on the much more basic issue of “to drone or not to drone,” Pakistani public opinion on drone strikes is of absolutely no relevance. If I think that killing X number of innocents in exchange for killing Y number of “suspected” “militants” just isn’t worth it, then it doesn’t really matter whether Pakistanis share that view. No opinion is made truer because of how many people agree with it. A majority of women could be against women’s suffrage—that would not make the view that women should have the right to vote any less true.
So I find the very presentation of the article disingenuous and unhelpful, because the article assumes, without justifying it or making the assumption explicit, that the use of drones in Pakistan is necessary. In papering over this very controversial position, the article obscures the more important issue (“to drone or not to drone”) in favor of focusing on rebutting an ancillary claim about public opinion. People care about winning, and if claim X which is associated with your side is rebutted, many people will perceive this as somehow “hurting” the overall side.
In this regard, the article doesn’t even do a good job of rebutting the claim it seeks to dismantle. The article asserts that the “conventional wisdom” that most Pakistanis hate drones 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.”
In other words, enough Pakistani minds aren’t made up when it comes to drones, so the U.S. still has an opportunity to win many of their “hearts and minds” on this issue. How the U.S. would precisely go about doing that convincing remains, unfortunately, outside the scope of this particular piece. Pity, since this is precisely what the debate about drones is, well, about.
The key finding of the article is the following,
“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?”
In trying to find out who these people are, the article speculates wildly about the connection between levels of education and access to diverse types of media, and the opinions Pakistanis have about drone strikes. This thesis is made explicit further down,
“The average Pakistani has minimal education and is conversant in a regional language and/or Urdu, the national language. A slender majority of men (69 percent) can read and write and only a minority of women (45 percent) can. Thus, the average Pakistani will either not care about issues such as drones or only have access to Urdu-language media, if they do know about the drones and care enough to follow stories on them. This is very important because there is a pervasive anti-drone discourse in Pakistan’s boisterous Urdu-language media (private television, radio, and print), which tends to be more jingoistic.”
These sweeping claims are all the more surprising given the article’s stated purpose, which is to throw cold water on other sweeping claims. What the article in effect says is that only a plurality of Pakistanis are against drones, most of those Pakistanis are illiterate and uneducated and probably falling prey to nationalist propaganda, and so not only should we be skeptical of whether their opinions are genuine or based on accurate information, but because of the pervasive level of ignorance in the country generally, and pertaining to drones specifically, there is a massive opportunity for the U.S. to,
“[B]e more assertive and transparent in discussing drone strikes in Pakistan because it must draw to its side the large swath of the population that doesn’t even know about the program. This may mean using radio, non-cable TV (including local Pakistani networks) or even hyperlocal media such as SMS — and it means doing so in Urdu and perhaps other vernacular languages. So far, the United States seems content to communicate with Pakistanis using the language only a miniscule fraction of the country knows: English. There is space for a genuine struggle over Pakistani public opinion, but the U.S. government has to enter the fray with greater openness and transparency. This may be the only way to save the drone program President Obama so values.”
Why are we even talking about saving Obama’s drone program? If the entire article is building up to the point of suggesting a strategy for doing so, why doesn’t it bother to, at any point, make even the smallest hint of an argument for why we should be fire-balling that country on a weekly basis?
Imagine this same article being written about torture less than a decade ago, and the article not even once touching on the morality, legality, or efficacy of it. These are the kinds of weeds that people like to get into, supposedly under the guise of seriousness. Because hey, more facts never hurt anyone! So instead of debating whether mistakenly (or intentionally) blowing up someone else’s family outside of a war zone, who aren’t even accused of wrong doing, is a war crime/atrocity/brutally inhumane act, lets first decide what some of their countrymen and women think, and then guess about whether they only think that cause their dumb.
No, no, we’re not ducking the real conversation—we’re digging into the non-crucial details and seeing what those details mean for the U.S.’s current military strategy.