I’m struck by contrasting public views on the US drone warfare program. In the United States, where the public has long been aware of the program, drone strikes have received increased critical attention in recent months because of the disclosure that an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, has been targeted for attack. Al-Awlaki, a radical cleric now based in Yemen, is alleged to have helped al-Qaeda organize terrorist plots against the US.
In the wake of news about al-Awlaki’s reported targeting, the US Congress for the first time held hearings on the drone program, examining the legal issues the program implicates and, specifically, the legality of carrying out strikes against American citizens. As the chairman of the subcommittee that held the hearings acknowledged in introducing the second hearing, in April, “accounts of the recent addition of an American citizen to the target list have received widespread attention.”
The hearings were long overdue. In recent years, the US has carried out drone strikes in several parts of the world–Pakistan, above all, but also Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia–and US use of drones has been increasing.
But because it is the CIA that is responsible for strikes outside of declared war zones, the program is highly classified and the US government has been reluctant to confirm even basic information about the program. Most of the press reporting about drones relies on anonymous administration sources for its key claims.
Both critics and supporters of drone warfare agree that the US government needs to do a better job of engaging with the public about the drone program. State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh’s recent legal defense of the program was, from this standpoint, an important contribution.
But US views are only part of the picture. Not a single drone attack has taken place on US soil; the US is the source of drone strikes, not their recipient. What of the countries in which the attacks occur; what kind of debate is occurring there?
If Americans have been roused by the possibility of their co-nationals being targeted for drone strikes, Pakistanis have faced this question from the beginning. Some 1,000 Pakistanis have been killed by US drone attacks on Pakistani soil since 2004. Lately, in the border states of North and South Waziristan, drone strikes have been a weekly, or even more frequent, occurrence.
Pakistani views of the US drone program are strikingly negative. A Gallup-Al Jazeera poll from August 2009 concluded that only 9 percent of Pakistanis approved of drone strikes, while 62 percent opposed them. Indeed, a just-issued survey carried out by a Pakistani think-tank found that three-quarters of the people surveyed, in the Swat Valley region of Pakistan, believed that US drone attacks have increased support for the country’s militants.
Pakistanis are angered by what they view as a violation of their country’s sovereignty (though it is an open secret that the Zardari government in Pakistan has allowed the strikes), and by excessive civilian casualties.
While the numbers of civilians vs. militants killed in these attacks are unclear–and hotly disputed–there is little doubt that the Pakistani public believes that the civilian costs are high.
The Pakistani press is replete with articles about drone attacks. Many set out high civilian casualty figures, while describing how women and children have been killed. (A typical headline: “60 drone hits kill 14 al-Qaeda men, 687 civilians.”)
Pakistanis and Americans live in different worlds when it comes to US drone strikes. This is true both in reality–Pakistanis actually face the strikes–and in terms of perception–Pakistanis are much more cognizant of the strikes’ negative costs.
Americans are not accustomed to feeling vulnerable to another country’s military might, and may not easily understand the extent to which Pakistanis dislike being in the another government’s cross-hairs. But they should gain at least the beginning of insight into Pakistani views when they consider their own heightened sensitivity to the US decision to target an American citizen.
Now take that concern and multiply it by 1000. Then imagine that another government is behind the trigger, and that Americans are being killed on US soil. The outrage isn’t hard to imagine.
JOANNE MARINER is a human rights lawyer living in New York City.