Aqil Shah

Madiha Tahir and Mahvish Ahmad, graduate students at Columbia and Cambridge Universities respectively, have responded to my article on drone blowback published by the Washington Post political science blog, Monkey Cage (a slightly edited version also appeared in the Post's printed Sunday edition). 

I am pleased to see that the two authors decided to engage my work. Admittedly, no research is flawless and mine is no exception. To be meaningful, however, criticism must be constructive in order to help others improve their work and advance scholarly debate. Tahir and Ahmad's riposte is destructive and disparaging. 

More specifically, the authors grossly misinterpret my findings and methods, expect an op-ed to discuss minutiae typical of an academic paper, nitpick the examples I use to illustrate the blowback thesis, legitimize the coerced silence of the local populace by dismissing majority opinion as immaterial to blowback, inappropriately question the motives and competence of the Washington Post/Monkey Cage editors, regurgitate neo-Marxian clichés to discredit my research as servicing "empire," and reject my findings without offering any credible alternative. In what follows, I address their two main objections, one conceptual-empirical and the other methodological, both of which are full of holes.  

Muddying the Already Murky Waters 

Tahir and Ahmad question the very concept of blowback as problematic. In their opinion, American officials deviously employ it to make their bombing of other countries solely about its consequences for the United States. The use of this "self-interested" concept, they contend, helps obscure the more pressing question of America's racially motivated interventions in Muslim-majority countries. In this jarringly cartoonish view of world politics, U.S. foreign policy towards these societies is driven primarily by its "racist paranoia." As a social scientist, I don't possess the psychic abilities to unmask allegedly sinister motives behind the actions or rhetoric of American policymakers. I can only assess the validity of specific theories or arguments based on evidence. 

Besides, op-eds are one-trick ponies. They address one key current issue. Mine, too, was focused on examining the common version of the blowback argument: civilian deaths in drone strikes (or the high civilian death ratio, according to some proponents) radicalize affected populations and motivate them to join terrorist groups to retaliate against a common enemy—the United States.  In writing the article, my main purpose was to confront this conventional wisdom with primary data from North Waziristan Agency (NWA), the Pakistani northwestern tribal district where the CIA has conducted most of its drone strikes. My critics, however, accuse me of using a straw man argument. For one, they cite an Amnesty International report referenced in my article as evidence that human rights organizations endorse the blowback thesis.

They rightly point out that it actually contains just one reference to blowback attributed to a senior Pakistani military official. I did use that report in an initial draft to show precisely that Pakistani officials also peddle the backlash thesis, but ended up excising that claim. The link has since been changed by the Post's editors to reference the correct report. It is duly noted in the article. I also cited former U.S. General James E. Cartwright's public warning that the United States is seeing blowback because of drones. Basically, I referenced both the report and Cartwright to identify two key constituencies, i.e., non-governmental rights organizations and former American military commanders, promoting the blowback argument.  In my original draft, the sentence immediately following these two examples stated, "The logic of blowback is simple," which the editors later changed to "their logic is simple."

I did use the David Killcullen and Andrew Exum's co-authored New York Times article, "Death from Above, Outrage Below" to illustrate the specific revenge pathway of blowback. Tahir and Ahmad assert that I inaccurately report this blowback argument by emphasizing civilian-to-militant death ratio when Killcullen and Exum are only concerned with the rate. In other words, they are interested in whether drones produce more terrorists than they kill. Let the original text be our guide here.  In fact, Killcullen and Exum do argue that drones “often kill more civilians than militants.” But even if drones killed more militants and fewer civilians, the authors are confident that “every one of these non-combatant deaths represents an alienated family, a new desire for revenge, and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially even as drone strikes have increased.” Yet they provide no data whatsoever to prove this hypothesized link between increased drone strikes and enhanced militant recruitment. Broadly speaking, my goal here was to show that the notion of blowback is based on the opinions and statements of important public figures, experts and writers rather than solid evidence. 

Unfortunately, Tahir and Ahmad only buttress this data-starved debate when they casually dismiss majority local opinion as irrelevant for assessing blowback because militants are usually a minority and even a few hundred can boost recruitment. Again, they, too, furnish no data to show that drones actually create terrorists. Contrary to their assertion, over a dozen respondents in my sample who self-identified as relatives of drone victims wanted redress—not revenge. And according to many well-informed respondents, tribal revenge is exacted against "an equal rival" often from one's own extended family, not a country or an entire community. 

Amongst the polemical accusations they hurl at my article, perhaps none is more egregious than the idea that asking locals about drones is designed to seek “native approval" of "imperial" policies, or that it is tantamount to presenting them with "macabre choices" between death by the militants, the military, and American drones.  The people of FATA do find themselves in horrible conditions created by bad state and non-state actors. But as a social scientist, I can explain what is, not what ought to be. And for two people claiming to be deeply concerned about human suffering in FATA, the "native" canard callously denies an already marginalized population their agency in deciding what's good for them. Sandwiched between the Pakistani armed forces and the militants, these pragmatic survivors have the right to make cost-benefit calculations about matters of life and death.  

If many of them prefer or support drone strikes over more indiscriminate artillery bombardment, they are entitled to their opinion. As researchers, we have no right to question their preferences or analyze them through our own moral compass. Besides, both data limitations, such as the serious dearth of militant recruitment figures, and common sense dictate that one can relatively reliably ascertain the effects of drone strikes by eliciting the views of those who have been directly exposed to them. I, therefore, maintain that, compared to other currently available data, my interview sample can provide the best contextualized answer to the blowback question. And I firmly stand by my finding that drone blowback in Pakistan is essentially a myth.  

Misreading Methods 

Their other primary charge is that I quantified the results of my qualitative interview data to deceive readers into believing that my findings were generalizable to the larger population. In order to address this criticism, let me briefly discuss my methodology. I used the non-random "snowball sampling" technique which entails seeking additional interview contacts from one's interviewees.  When dealing with a conflict-afflicted population unwilling or reluctant to discuss controversial and sensitive subject likes drones with strangers, referrals from a trusted or reliable source made it more likely for interviewees to agree to speak with me.  This approach, like most social science methods, is subject to bias.  To ensure that I received relatively balanced information from a diversity of sources, interviewees were divided into categories based on their occupational or social backgrounds, e.g., maliks (tribal elders), party leaders, journalists, and NGO workers; and different types within these categories, for instance, Pashtun nationalist and Islamist politicians, print and broadcast journalists, and so on. In the article, I followed standard social science practice by very clearly stating that my sample was not representative of the population. I used percentages to report my findings in an accessible form. For example, rather than using raw numbers (74 of 147 respondents in my sample believed x), using percentages, (50 percent of respondents believed x) helps the reader make better sense of the results. In other words, I reported the data appropriately.

It is also worth mentioning that my piece was reviewed by Monkey Cage editor, eminent Middle East scholar and political science Professor Marc Lynch of George Washington University. Disturbingly, Tahir and Ahmad deride the editors of the Washington Post/Monkey Cage—all widely respected social scientists—for their "irresponsible" decision to publish my article because it presumably reflected their own view. In other words, Tahir and Ahmad take the editors for another bunch of American foreign policy apologists. This ad hominem attack on the professional integrity of the entire editorial team, and specifically Professor Lynch, deserves an apology. 

They also accuse me of misrepresenting the results of the 2011 CAMP (a local NGO) survey to make my case.  Surprisingly, the authors readily consider that survey to be "statistically representative" and hence, unproblematic. Social scientists know well that opinion surveys in conflict settings suffer from a serious social desirability bias (or the tendency of respondents to tell surveyors the socially sanctioned "truth" to avoid any harm). Besides, Pakistani security forces tightly control access to NWA (and other FATA agencies), typically escorting journalists or other observers everywhere which is enough to spook any local. For instance, Amnesty International has reported how the fear of retribution from the army or armed militants made residents reluctant to even talk to researchers. Hence, existing surveys do not provide a representative sample of the residents of North Waziristan, let alone FATA. Despite these problems, I cited the CAMP poll because, unlike the more well-known Terror Free Tomorrow-New America Foundation 2010 FATA opinion survey,  it is disaggregated by agency. This is very important because breaking down the findings to the agency level reveals a striking finding typically obscured in FATA-wide results: support for drone strikes is higher (21 percent of respondents say drone strikes are always or sometimes justified) in NWA than all the other FATA agencies. 

Ironically, Tahir and Ahmad are either unware or ignore the fact that the CAMP study was funded by the "imperialist" UK government, which means that its results are similarly tainted by what the authors see as a sinister plot of legitimizing the use of American power by circulating opinions and numbers as "fact."  Apparently, even Pakistan's most respected daily English newspaper, Dawn, is part of this global cabal of deception because it published my article. 

Show Me the Data

Social reality is complex, and social science can only hope to shed light on a small part of it. Indeed, like all extant work on the topic, mine can only partly illuminate the blowback puzzle. It does so from the typically ignored perspective of a significant slice of the population which has lived in the proximity of drones.  

The authors' rejection of my findings suggests that they have an alternative solution for studying blowback. What is that alternative: "examining the effects of drone bombardment” and "analyzing whether there is blowback?”  Aside from using the word "bombardment" (or a continuous attack with bombs) to amplify the destructive effects of drones for readers, this is a lazy, vague and almost meaningless solution. The authors claim they have collected a larger sample of interviews with FATA residents than mine which would allow them to better analyze blowback. But the proof of the pudding is in its eating, and we can't evaluate their data unless they are published or made publicly available. Perhaps previous work can provide us with some clues. One example is Tahir's 2013 film, "Wounds of Waziristan," which claims to document the tragic human consequences of drone warfare. As noble as that goal sounds, the problem is that her film is based almost entirely on the views of two alleged victims of drone strikes, which are buttressed by uncorroborated photographs of corpses and rubble from demolished buildings designed to show that drones wreak havoc in FATA. While it is important to capture the voice of the two victims, the film willfully ignores others who may have an opposing view to the filmmaker's. And as noted by one sharp critic, the film fails to name the Taliban or al-Qaeda who terrorized FATA residents in the first place and triggered both American drone strikes and Pakistani military offensives. Instead, by referring to them as "insurgents" and juxtaposing American drones with the British bombing of tribal anti-colonial fighters in the 1920s, it legitimizes these designated global terrorists as anti-imperial rebels.  

I can only hope that the authors' future work on drones will go beyond highly selective reporting, false historical analogies, and the whitewashing of brutal terrorists as resistance fighters, to properly engage and advance the important debate on drone warfare based on robust data. Until then, their criticisms amount to a lot of smoke but no fire. 

Aqil Shah is Wick Cary Assistant Professor of South Asian Politics in the Colleg of International Studies at the University of Oklahoma, and a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His research interests include democratization, civil-military relations, U.S. foreign policy, and security issues with a regional focus on South Asia. His research and analysis have appeared in Perspectives on Politics, Journal of Democracy, Democratization, Current History, and Foreign Affairs.