Drone Strikes and Anti-Americanism

To what extent do drone strikes cause anti-Americanism and an increase in militancy? In a recent Op-Ed in The New York Times, writer and activist Ibrahim Mothana strongly condemns the use of drone attacks in Yemen by the Obama Administration. He unequivocally suggests a causal relationship between their increased use and growing anger towards the United States, stating

Drone strikes are causing more and more Yemenis to hate America and join radical militants; they are not driven by ideology but rather by a sense of revenge and despair. . . . . Indeed, the drone program is leading to the Talibanization of vast tribal areas and the radicalization of people who could otherwise be America’s allies in the fight against terrorism in Yemen.

Mothana begins his article with a jarring quote from a Yemeni lawyer: “Dear Obama, when a US drone missile kills a child in Yemen, the father will go to war with you, guaranteed. Nothing to do with al-Qaeda.”

Substitute Yemen for Pakistan and the words would still ring true for many. The use of drone attacks in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on the border of Afghanistan is a huge point of contention and controversy in Pakistan. The majority of the country appears to be vehemently opposed to their use, with protests and rallies against drone strikes common. Opposition is both based on the illegality of the strikes – both from an international human rights law perspective and their violation of the country’s sovereignty – as well as the suggestion that a very large number of civilians are killed in the process (statistics, when available, are largely contested). As the recent New York Times article made apparent, the definition of “combatant” is itself frighteningly broad:

Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

And, as David Ignatius makes clear in his latest piece, drone strikes are a huge hurdle in successful bilateral relations between the U.S. and Pakistan. The situation, and public sentiment, is further complicated by evidence presented (in part through Wikileaks) that the Pakistan government has given tacit approval to the continuation of these strikes. The National Assembly’s recent resolution stalling resumption of Pak-US talks on the question of drones thus rings hallow.

However, in my conversations with some people from the tribal areas (certainly not representative of the population, as a clear selection bias exists), the counter-argument arises that, contrary to popular opinion, drone strikes are the lesser of other evils (with the bigger evils being allowing militants to roam free, as well as military operations carried out by the Pakistan army). Many of these individuals argue that drone strikes are in fact effective and create less damage than the more invasive military operations. They state that it is individuals living outside of the tribal areas, where drone strikes do not occur, who are most opposed to their use.

To be honest, I am having a hard time reconciling these anecdotes with the harrowing accounts featured in the media. In their piece for The Independent from March of this year, Andrew Buncombe and Issam Ahmed profiled FATA residents who had lost loved ones as a result of drone strikes:

Imran Khan Wazir, a day labourer, said his father, Malik Ismail, was also killed at the jirga. He said he was in the market in Miran Shah, the main town in North Waziristan, when he learned the news. “It’s been a huge loss. I’m the only brother, and now I have the responsibility of looking after the family,” he said. “America – stop these attacks. These are wicked acts. Many innocents are dying. Our jirga was innocent.”

Polling data from The New America Foundation indicates that more than three-quarters of FATA residents oppose drone strikes. Meanwhile, other surveys, such as those carried out by the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy, have found that less than half of those living in FATA (compared with a far greater number in the rest of Pakistan) felt anti-American sentiment had increased as a result of the drones, which they perceived as damaging to militant organizations. Further research is no doubt needed on the precise mechanism by which drone strikes lead to anti-Americanism and in turn to militancy, particularly in the regions directly affected by the strikes. Given the precarious security situation, clearly this is no easy task.

In discussing the factors that drive anti-Americanism in Muslim countries, arguments swing between those who cite Huntington’s “Clash of Civilization” theory which posits that fundamental differences between social norms and values are to blame, and others who place the blame squarely on U.S. policies.

In a recent research paper entitled “How Deeply Held Are Anti-American Attitudes Among Pakistani Youth?”, Adeline Delavande and Basit Zafar carry out a survey experiment in Pakistan to explore the impact of information on attitudes towards the U.S. They find that “(i) public opinions are not purely a cultural phenomenon, and are malleable, and (ii) the tendency of respondents to ignore information not aligned with their priors can be overcome.” The authors survey young, urban Pakistanis, and expose them to fact-based statements describing the U.S. in either a positive or negative light. They find that many respondents revised their attitudes up when provided positive information, and down for negative. However, the majority (57%) of respondents affiliated with conservative educational institutions did not revise their attitude, suggesting that an individual’s prior beliefs may not be overcome by increased information.

In a country where conspiracy theories are incredibly common (and often proven true) and where information and facts are always disputed, this high percentage is not surprising. In fact, it is the “information” itself that is suspect; there is little that people here view as objective fact.

Lisa Blaydes and Drew A. Linzer indirectly address this issue in their convincing work on elite competition and anti-Americanism in Muslim countries. Since this paper has already been effectively reviewed by The Wall Street Journal and The Monkey Cage, I won’t go into too much detail here. Still, it’s worth re-reading their following conclusion:

Muslim anti-Americanism is predominantly a domestic, elite-led phenomenon that intensifies when there is greater competition between Islamist and secular-nationalist political factions within a country….. Intense competition between political elites along Islamist-secular lines provides these incentives, making it advantageous for elites to foment anti-American sentiment for their own political gain.

This struggle over competing narratives finds clear support in Pakistan, and nowhere is it more apparent than in debates and discussion over the use of drone strikes in the country.


One thought on “Drone Strikes and Anti-Americanism

  1. Pingback: Follow-up to Drones and Anti-Americanism | The Smoke-Filled Room

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