Targeted Killing: Drones

Readings: Christine Fair, "Drones, Spies, Terrorists and Second-Class Citizenship in Pakistan - A Review Essay"

By Kenneth Anderson
Saturday, November 16, 2013, 6:58 PM

Georgetown University political scientist C. Christine Fair has been a leading voice in challenging much of the conventional wisdom about the nature of conflict in Pakistan, including the role of US drones, the Pakistani Taliban, and Pakistan's military.  In a brief but comprehensive essay, forthcoming in the journal Small Wars and Insurgencies (25.1), she reviews a half dozen recent books and reports on these topics.  "Drones, Spies, Terrorists, and Second Class Citizenship in Pakistan" is a compact and readable essay, posted as a working draft at SSRN.  It bears close reading not just with respect to the works it reviews, but as background to new reports released by advocacy groups, notably Amnesty International's "Will I Be Next?" US Drone Strikes in Pakistan (October 2013).  Here is the abstract:

This essay reviews seven recent books and reports that focus upon the use of U.S. armed drones in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). This essay synthesizes a historical account of the program, critically interrogates key arguments and evidence advanced by the various authors, and draws attention the particular problems that confront those who live in the FATA and the second-class citizenship that the Pakistani state has bestowed upon them for reasons of domestic and foreign policy concerns. This review essay does not intend to be the final word on any of the ongoing policy debates. But it does hope to enable a wider audience to take part in these important deliberations.

The books and reports under review are:

The complexities of conflict in Pakistan's tribal regions have been little appreciated in the US until recently.  Mark Mazetti and David Sanger, two leading national security reporters whose books are under review by Fair, of course both recognize the centrality of fighting between the Pakistani government and the Pakistani Taliban in their writing. Overall, though, it's only in the past two or three years that it implications  have been drawn into American policy debates as well as reporting on US drone strikes, to which one can credit Fair's own writing and willingness to take on the conventional wisdom.  Until taking this on board, however, those reporting or debating US drone strikes in Pakistan were often not in a position even to know to ask the question, how does one know whether a supposed drone strike was a US drone or a Pakistani military attack? Because, as Fair's essay (along with her other writing and extensive public discussion) shows, the extent of Pakistani military activity in the FATA makes that a live factual question in some important cases.

Fair also explains in her essay - in her discussion Akbar Ahmed's The Thistle and the Drone, particularly - why she calls the inhabitants of the FATA "second class citizens": the region's separate legal status in Pakistan, crucial to understanding its governance relationship to Islamabad and the Pakistani military's role there.  Fair's essay is, moreover, one of the few instances of a social scientist directly taking on the methodology pursued by the law student advocacy clinics at NYU and Stanford that produced Living Under Drones.  Her conclusions about the protocols of the study are reproduced below the fold (so as not to hide my own conclusions behind hers, I reach about the same place in my Commentary article, "The Case for Drones.")

Small Wars and Insurgencies is a respected academic journal, but (like its sister journal on whose editorial board I serve, Terrorism and Political Violence, where Fair has also published) it is behind a subscriber wall and its readership consists largely of academic specialists.  Whereas those who would benefit most from reading this article are journalists and policy analysts; this open source working draft on SSRN is very welcome.

Irrespective of what the data say or cannot say, the specter of civilian casualties animate much of the advocacy work against drones. Unfortunately, not all of this research is empirically robust. Recently the law school clinics of Stanford University and New York University published their report (Living Under the Drone) in which they authors attempt to uncover and document the civilian cost of the US drone program in Pakistan’s tribal agency of Waziristan ...  When the authors veer into social science research methodology, they make several fundamental and avoidable empirical blunders. Worse yet, the authors evidence no understanding of these important errors and proceed to make claims about the “strategic effects” of the drone program which their minimal, and highly problematic sample of data cannot support. Because this report continues to receive accolades by those who have not assessed its methodology, it is worth reviewing their data collection and handling in some detail here.

First and foremost, this report is the result of advocacy-driven investigation. As the authors acknowledge, “In December 2011, Reprieve, a charity based in the United Kingdom, contacted the Stanford Clinic to ask whether it would be interested in conducting independent investigations into whether, and to what extent drone strikes in Pakistan confirmed to international law and caused harm and/or injury to civilians.” (Stanford-NYU Law Schools, p. i). It is important to note that Reprieve, and its Pakistani partner organization The Foundation for Fundamental Rights (FFR), have been vigorous foes of the drone program and have argued forcefully for its termination. Thus at the inception of this project, the law schools were requested to conduct research on behalf of an organization that is fundamentally opposed to drones. With proper social science methods, the impact of this could have been mitigated. However, the researchers only compounded this problem of conflict of interest by allowing Reprieve and FFR to provide the research team with logistical support in Pakistan. In fact, the FFR “assisted in contacting many of the potential interviewees, particularly those who reside in North Waziristan, and in the difficult work of arranging interviews” (Stanford-NYU Law Schools, p. i).

The report is based upon a meager 130 “interviews with victims and witnesses of drone activity, their family members, current and former Pakistani government officials, representatives from five major Pakistani political parties, subject matter experts, lawyers, medical professionals, development and humanitarian workers, members of civil society, academic, and journalists” (Stanford-NYU Law Schools, P.2). The authors concede that they did no interviews in North Waziristan or any of the other agencies comprising the FATA. Rather, they conducted their interviews during two separate trips to Pakistan in March and May 2012. All of the interviews were conducted in the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, Peshawar, and Lahore. The authors claim that they conducted interviews with 69 “experiential victims.” These experiential victims claimed to be “witnesses to drone strikes or surveillance, victims of strikes, or family members of victims from North Waziristan” (Stanford-NYU Law Schools, p. 2). The authors of the report readily concede that the “majority of the experiential victims interviewed were arranged with the assistance of the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, a legal nonprofit based in Islamabad that has become the most prominent legal advocate for drone victims in Pakistan....Some interviews also included a researcher from either Reprieve or the Foundation for Fundamental Rights” (Stanford-NYU Law Schools, p. 3). The sample from which the researchers base their conclusions is at best a convenience sample, riven with dependent-variable selection bias. While the interviewees were not compensated, they were provided with travel arrangements by FFR. While the authors do not concede this point, the presence of FFR and/or Reprieve likely influenced the information provided since they ... provided the logistical support that enabled their travel.

Given that Reprieve and FFR are staunch drone foes, it is doubtful that the organizations would provide an unbiased selection of interview subjects for the study. In complete disregard of any scientific principle of sample selection, the authors of the report made no effort to solicit the views of pro-drone Pakistanis. Despite the persistent belief that such persons do not exist, polling data suggest sizeable minorities do support drone strikes if for no other reason than doing nothing is not an option for those who live under the tyranny of the militants in FATA. In addition, Pakistani newspapers do publish editorials by pro-drone Pakistanis. Yet the report does not once consider those who believe that drones are a lesser evil than the militants ensconced in Waziristan and other tribal agencies of FATA.

While the authors were apparently oblivious to this fundamental conflict of interest and likely ensuing bias in their interview data, they nonetheless recognized that the presence of foreigners would compromise the data. After all, they explained that fear of retribution “from all sides—Pakistani military, intelligence services, non-state armed groups—for speaking with outsiders about the issues raised in this report” (Stanford-NYU Law Schools, p. 4). Yet the authors were surprisingly willing to take every utterance by their interviewees at face value despite these challenges that they acknowledge. The authors further claim that that “The research team has made extensive efforts to check information provided by interviewees against that provided in other interviews, known general background information, other reports and investigations, media report, and physical evidence wherever possible. Many of the interviewees provided victims’ identification cards and some shared photographs of victims and strike sites, or medical records documenting their injuries. We also reviewed pieces of missile shrapnel” (Stanford-NYU Law Schools, p. 5). All of this is reassuring except for the fact none of the research team are actually forensic or munitions experts and thus they cannot in fact prove that any of this damage to human life or property was due to drones. Moreover, they do not provide any actual example of independent confirmation of information provided orally by respondents. As the work of Sebastian Abbot attests, such actual independent confirmation is possible although it adds a layer of difficulty and cost to the exercise.

Expecting researchers to prove that persons who were killed actually existed in the first instance or to prove that that injury or death is due to drones may seem like an inappropriate request. Unfortunately, it is not. Pakistani media has reported that individuals and groups have circulated fraudulent photos of persons whom they alleged were injured by drones but were not. It is also relatively easy to obtain fake birth and death certificates in Pakistan through bribery.  Finally, it should be understood that North Waziristan is not only afflicted by drones. Since the flight of the Afghan Taliban and their Al Qaeda associates to Waziristan in late 2001, the residents of this tribal agency and others have been terrorized by these militants and their Pakistani allies who have sought to establish micro-emirates of Sharia through the FATA and nearby areas. Suicide and other attacks at markets, sporting facilities, schools, military and paramilitary outposts have become common place. Pakistani Taliban have killed reporters, politicians, government officials, barbers, purveyors of CD’s as well as anyone that they believe are working with the state or the Americans to hinder their rein of impunity.  In addition, Pakistan military and paramilitary organizations have also operated in the tribal areas. Oddly, the authors of this report assume that their interlocutors experience post traumatic stress disorder and other disruptions to ordinary life is attributable singularly to drones. The authors make no effort to consider other explanations for such observations much less attempt to disambiguate the potential sources of harm they experienced.