My own quantitative with the qualitative research confirms that over-the-horizon strikes can be carried out consistently and effectively with minimum casualties or popular blowback. I collected data by interviewing 116 residents of Pakistan’s tribal belt — where the United States has conducted over 420 drone strikes. Two-thirds of my sample said that they were in favor of the American drone program, calling it “successful” and “effective” in killing militants. All those in favor of unmanned strikes admitted that there were instances of civilian casualties, such as the attack on a Taliban commander’s funeral in 2009 and another strike at a jirga in 2011. However, the respondents quickly added that a majority of the strikes killed only militants.
tribal leaders (known as malik) and elders (known as masharaan), university students, journalists, academics, activists, lawyers, and internally displaced persons returning to their homes — a clear majority of them rejected that narrative. For them, drones had done what local militias and even Pakistani military operations could not do: kill the bad guys, with limited-to-no collateral damage. “The drone is a justice-delivering technology,” one respondent from South Waziristan said. “Taliban Inc. — which is very powerful as it’s challenging Pakistan’s state sovereignty — commits atrocities against the local population and the people don’t have the power or the resources to retaliate or defend themselves. The drone compensates for this asymmetry.”
A resident of North Waziristan said he had seen drones hovering in the sky every day for weeks on end but had never witnessed a strike. “We never had a drone strike in our village because we didn’t have any militants in our area,” he said, demonstrating his confidence in the targeting of the drone program.
To be sure, this was not always the case. According to my respondents, the initial years of the drone program under President George W. Bush invoked fear among the population — missed targets caused trauma, and there were tens of civilian casualties, including women and children. Residents in my sample who support drone strikes had opposed the program during its initial years, but between 2009 and 2011, their opinion became more favorable and accepting of the operations.