Drones are bad, but there's no better alternative

It is not a simple one to answer. Looking at how residents in the FATA have behaved in other violent campaigns is instructive. In early 2009, the Pakistani Army announced its campaign to “clear” the Swat Valley, north of Islamabad, of terrorist groups that had been systematically murdering elders and tribal policemen and destroying hundreds of schools and other government buildings. As the campaign proceeded, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said more than 300,000 people fled the fighting. By the end of the campaign, more than 1 million people got displaced by the army-Taliban fighting in Swat, which left the region completely devastated.

There have been no reported mass movements of people fleeing the drones in the last four years. The mere threat of a Pakistani army offensive into Waziristan, however, prompts thousands to flee in terror. There are several possible explanations: for example, people in heavily affected drone areas might be terrified to leave their houses.

But there is a simpler explanation: Perhaps drones are not as scary as opponents claim. A February investigation by the Associated Press — which, unlike the Living Under Drones study, interviewed Pakistanis inside the FATA — reported that civilian casualties from drones are far lower than Pakistan civil society figures, journalists, and party officials assert publicly. This calls into question the wisdom of relying on such interested parties to build a picture of the utility and morality of targeted killings in Pakistan. Furthermore, the Community Appraisal and Motivation Programme (CAMP), a Pakistan-based research group, consistently finds in its surveys within the FATA that the most pressing security fear among residents is bomb blasts by terror groups, followed closely by the Pakistani military. When asked open-ended questions about their greatest fears, very few ever mention drones.