Aqil Shah: Drone blowback in Pakistan is a myth. Here’s why. – The Washington Post

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-2012 “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.

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