About The Drone Data
This year has been the busiest yet for the United States' covert drones program in northwest Pakistan: as of Oct. 15, the Obama administration has authorized at least 88 strikes, which reportedly have killed between 440 and 730 people, the majority of them reported militants. This year, the drone strikes are said to have killed at least 10 al-Qaeda or Taliban commanders, including two of al-Qaeda's "number-threes," Mustafa Abu al-Yazid and Sheikh al-Fateh.
In the busiest year of the program, September was the busiest month, with 22 reported strikes targeting militants in North Waziristan, a viper's nest of Haqqani network insurgents, Pakistani Taliban fighters, members of al-Qaeda and other local militants. The flurry of attacks was reportedly aimed at interrupting a Pakistan-based plot, linked to al-Qaeda, involving plans to carry out "Mumbai-style" attacks in major European cities.
Given the evident importance of the drones program to the Obama administration -- which has in 20 months more than tripled the number of strikes carried out by the Bush administration -- and Pakistan's continued public objections to the strikes, which officials decry on the grounds that they violate Pakistan's sovereignty, it is important to consider the opinions of those the strikes are impacting the most: residents of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
A common objection to the strikes is that they kill too many civilians: Pakistani government officials estimate that more than 700 civilians were killed by the drone strikes last year, but on the other end of the spectrum a U.S. government official asserted last December that "just over 20" civilians and "more than 400" fighters had been killed in less than two years. Other estimates of civilian deaths range from 98 percent to 10 percent of the total fatalities. According to our survey of reliable media accounts of each drone strike, the non-militant fatality rate since 2004 is approximately 28 percent, and in 2010, the figure is more like eight percent -- likely as a result of more spies in Pakistan's tribal areas, better targeting, more intelligence cooperation and smaller missiles.
In late June and early July, the New America Foundation and Terror Free Tomorrow, in partnership with the Pakistani NGO Community Appraisal & Motivation Programme, carried out the first comprehensive public opinion survey of Pakistan's tribal areas that dealt specifically with the security issues that are at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy in Pakistan: drone strikes, views of the U.S. military and other actors in the region, and violence in the FATA. The poll was released in late September at the regional level, but the results of the polling on the agency level have not been previously released. Much of the polling from other organizations has not included samples of the population of the FATA due to security concerns and other limitations.
Across the FATA as a whole, our poll found that more than three quarters of those surveyed opposed the use of drone strikes inside the FATA. The story inside each agency is somewhat different. Contrary to some discussions of the issue, those who live closest to the drone strikes are not in favor of the drones program: in North Waziristan, where 63 percent of the strikes between 2004 and the end of our poll on July 20, 2010 occurred, a scant 9.7 percent of those surveyed supported drone strikes. In Orakzai, where only one drone strike has ever been reported, 17 percent supported them. In the FATA's northernmost agency, Bajaur, where three reported strikes have taken place (and none during the Obama administration), 46.5 percent of the population supports the program. Location does not seem to be a reliable predictor for public opinion about the drone attacks, except to tell us that like elsewhere in Pakistan, the population is opposed to the strikes.
Public opinion in North Waziristan, which U.S. officials believe is the source for at least half the attacks in Afghanistan, is particularly critical to examine. Perhaps unsurprisingly given that two-thirds of the drone strikes have taken place there, 68 percent of our sample in North Waziristan believes the United States is most responsible for violence in the FATA. It is notable that more than half of those surveyed think the drone strikes kill mostly civilians, and only 15 percent believe they mostly killed militants. Our survey of press reports shows that the strikes in North Waziristan have killed approximately 70 percent militants and 30 percent non-militants since 2004, although in 2010 the percentage of non-militants killed in that Agency has dropped to nine.
And opposition to the drones in North Waziristan remains high no matter who operates the planes: nearly half think the Pakistani military should never use drones in the tribal regions, and 98 percent of those surveyed are opposed to the United States' use of military action in the FATA without the involvement of the Pakistani military.
Perhaps indicative of the regions' roles as home base for Pakistani Taliban chiefs like the late Baitullah Mehsud and Hakimullah Mehsud, support for the Pakistani Taliban in North and South Waziristan is higher than across the rest of the FATA, at 34.2 percent and 45.2 percent respectively. In the FATA as a whole, only 19 percent support the TTP, and across Pakistan, 18 percent. Al-Qaeda and foreign fighters are unpopular across the agencies, receiving the most support at 18 percent in Mohmand and the least in Orakzai with a mere four percent. As a whole, 8.6 percent of FATA residents support the presence of al-Qaeda in their areas, less than half of the group's favorability ratings in the rest of Pakistan (18 percent), according to Pew polling from earlier this year.
Peter Bergen, CNN's national security analyst and author of The Osama bin Laden I Know, is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-director of its Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative, where Katherine Tiedemann is a research fellow.