Observers of Pakistani politics say Pakistanis universally loathe the American drone strikes against Islamist militants in Pakistan's tribal belt. The view is based on anecdotal accounts of Pakistanis, but not the ones most affected by the strikes who live in the tribal areas where the drones fly. Most of these informants have no personal knowledge of the tribal areas and the political situation that prevails there. Despite these limitations, observers such as Murtaza Haider confidently avow that "if there is a consensus in Pakistan on any one matter, it is the unanimous opposition to the American drone strikes on Pakistan's territory ."
This conventional wisdom is wrong. Yes, drone strikes are not very popular among a large section of Pakistani society. But Pakistanis are not united in opposition to drone strikes. In fact, many Pakistanis support the drone strikes. This suggests that there is room for the United States to engage in a public diplomacy campaign to win over more Pakistanis to the idea that drone strikes are not the bringers of carnage that is so often portrayed in the Urdu-language media in Pakistan if the United States could be persuaded to bring this worst-kept secret out of the closet and into embassy briefings in Islamabad.
Writers critical of the drone program have mobilized various public opinion polls to buttress their claims, notably those conducted by the Pew Research Center as a part of its Global Attitudes Project. Pew asks Pakistanis whether they believe that the drone strikes are conducted with consent of the Pakistani government and whether they believe the strikes kill civilians in large numbers, among other sensitive topics. Drone opponents have used the responses as evidence that the program is being forced on Pakistanis by the United States, which has decided to engage in these extrajudicial killings as the way to best conduct its own war against Islamist militants who are ensconced in Pakistan's tribal areas. Pew's 2010 report on the drone war declared: "There is little support for U.S. drone strikes against extremist leaders -- those who are aware of those attacks generally say they are not necessary, and overwhelmingly they believe that the strikes kill too many civilians." Drone foes have seized upon these and subsequent survey results and marshaled them as iron-class proof that Washington's drone program faces a wall of Pakistani public opposition. Fortifying opinion with data is a welcome thing. Unfortunately, drone critics have been highly selective in their use of the data, with a tendency to rely on survey answers that cast Pakistani opinion as being overwhelmingly hostile to drones. When one examines all of the data gathered by Pew on drones in Pakistan, a very different and much more complex picture emerges about Pakistani attitudes toward various aspects of the American drone program. A more detailed look at the data suggests that that even while some Pakistanis think drones kill too many innocent Pakistanis, they are still necessary.