The U.S. drone program creates more militants than it kills, according to the head of intelligence for the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the U.S. military unit that oversees that very program.
"When you drop a bomb from a drone… you are going to cause more damage than you are going to cause good," remarked Michael T. Flynn. The retired Army lieutenant general, who also served as the U.S. Central Command's director of intelligence, says that "the more bombs we drop, that just… fuels the conflict."
Not everyone accepts the assessment of the former JSOC intelligence chief, however. Still today, defenders of the U.S. drone program insist it does more good than harm. One scholar, Georgetown University professor Christine Fair, is particularly strident in her support.
In a debate on the Al Jazeera program UpFront in October, Fair butted heads with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald, a prominent critic of the U.S. drone program. Fair, notorious for her heated rhetoric, accused Greenwald of being a "liar" and insulted Al Jazeera several times, claiming the network does not appreciate "nuance" in the way she does. Greenwald in turn criticized Fair for hardly letting him get a word in; whenever he got a rare chance to speak, she would constantly interrupt him, leading host Mehdi Hasan to ask her to stop.
The lack of etiquette aside, Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Shadi Hamid remarked that Fair's arguments in the debate were "surprisingly weak."
After the debate, Fair took to Twitter to mud-sling. She expressed pride at not letting Greenwald speak, boasting she "shut that lying clown down." "I AM a rambo b**ch," she proclaimed.
Fair also called Greenwald a "pathological liar, a narcissist, [and] a fool." She said she would like to put Greenwald and award-winning British journalist Mehdi Hasan in a Pakistani Taliban stronghold, presumably to be tortured, "then ask 'em about drones."
Elsewhere on social media, Fair has made similarly provocative comments. In a Facebook post, Fair called Pakistan "an enemy" and said "We invaded the wrong dog-damned country," implying the U.S. should have invaded Pakistan, not Afghanistan.
In another Facebook post, Fair insisted that "India needs to woman up and SQUASH Pakistan militarily, diplomatically, politically and economically." Both India and Pakistan are nuclear states.
Fair proudly identifies as a staunch liberal and advocates for a belligerent foreign policy. She rails against neo-conservatives, but chastises the Left for criticizing U.S. militarism. In 2012, she told a journalist on Twitter "Dude! I am still very much pro drones. Sorry. They are the least worst option. My bed of coals is set to 11."
Despite the sporadic jejune Twitter tirade, Fair has established herself as one of the drone program's most vociferous proponents. Fair is a specialist in South Asian politics, culture, and languages, with a PhD from the University of Chicago. She has published extensively, in a wide variety of both scholarly and journalistic publications. If you see an article in a large publication defending the U.S. drone program in Pakistan, there is a good chance she wrote or co-authored it.
Reviewing the "mountains of evidence"
After her debate with Greenwald, Fair wrote an article for the Brookings Institution's Lawfare blog. While making jabs at Greenwald, Hasan, and Al Jazeera; characterizing her participation in the debate as an "ignominious distinction"; and implying that The Intercept, the publication co-founded by Greenwald with other award-winning journalists, is a criminal venture, not a whistleblowing news outlet, Fair forcefully defended the drone program.
Secret government documents leaked to The Intercept by a whistleblower show that 90 percent of people killed in U.S. drone strikes in a five-month period in provinces on Afghanistan's eastern border with Pakistan were not the intended targets. Fair accused The Intercept of "abusing" and selectively interpreting the government's data. In a followup piece in the Huffington Post, she maintained that the findings of the Drone Papers do not apply to the drone program in Pakistan.
Greenwald pointed out that there are "mountains of evidence" showing that the U.S. drone program is killing large numbers of civilians, not just in Pakistan, but also in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, and more. In these articles and the Al Jazeera debate, Fair took issue with the many studies cited by Greenwald, arguing they are flawed.
"Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians from U.S. Drone Practices in Pakistan," an intensive 2012 study conducted over nine months by the law schools at New York University (NYU) and Stanford University, found that the U.S. drone program had killed hundreds of civilians in Pakistan, and "cause[d] considerable and under-accounted-for harm to the daily lives of ordinary civilians, beyond death and physical injury."
The NYU/Stanford report was based on two investigations in Pakistan; hundreds of interviews with victims, witnesses, and experts; and a review of thousands of pages of government and media documents. It concluded that the U.S. drone program had "terrorize[d] men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities." The study indicated that drones have even returned to target rescuers after drone attacks, making "both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims."
Fair accused the NYU/Stanford study of being "advocacy work," arguing its findings were influenced by the human rights organizations Reprieve and the Foundation for Fundamental Rights. Reprieve has itself investigated the casualties of the drone program. It found that, in attempts to kill just 41 militants, the U.S. military killed 1,147 people in Pakistan and Yemen, as of November 2014.
According to Fair, Reprieve's research is biased advocacy work, not scholarly research. She also accused the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), whose research the NYU/Stanford study cited, of being an advocacy organization.
For years, TBIJ has meticulously documented the casualties of drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan. It estimates between 423 and 965 Pakistani civilians have been killed by the U.S. drone program. TBIJ has also documented how U.S. drones have targeted rescuers, and even attacked funerals of people killed in drone strikes.
I reached out to the Bureau and, although it did not want to comment on the affair, it maintained it is a journalism organization, not an advocacy group. TBIJ pointed out it has done work not just on drones, but also on political corruption in Europe, British political party funding, deaths in police custody in the U.K., and more.
Numerous other studies have found the U.S. drone program in Pakistan to be wildly unpopular and counterproductive. A 2012 poll conducted by leading polling agency Pew found that just 17 percent of Pakistanis supported the U.S. drone program. In an article in The Atlantic, Fair and colleagues argued this Pew report was flawed. The day after the piece was published, The Atlantic's own Conor Friedersdorf called Fair out on her sloppy methodology, accusing her of making "strained interpretations of public opinion data." "I don't know that I've ever seen a better example of interventionist hubris and naivete," Friedersdorf observed.
In the time since Fair criticized Pew's original survey, the polling agency has done more. A 2014 Pew poll found that 66 percent of Pakistanis opposed the U.S. drone program. And another 2014 Pew study found that 67 percent of Pakistanis agreed that U.S. drone strikes "kill too many innocent people." Only 21% of participants said drone strikes "are necessary to defend."
Denying civilian casualties
In 2010, Fair boldly claimed that U.S. "drones are not killing innocent civilians," wholly writing off all reports of civilian casualties. Fair rejected the research done by David Kilcullen, a former counterinsurgency adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, and Andrew Exum, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, that said otherwise.
At the time Fair insisted that civilians had not been killed, an investigation conducted by Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann of the New America Foundation had found that the total of civilian deaths from U.S. drone strikes from 2006 to mid-2010 was "in the range of 250 to 320, or between 31 and 33 percent."
Since then, Fair has conceded that civilians have been killed in the U.S. drone program, but she avers that their deaths are, although unfortunate, justified in the fight against extremism in Pakistan. She rebukes any study that suggests the drone program in Pakistan makes things worse, or even is unpopular.
In its research, Amnesty International came to the conclusions most scholars and journalists have. Amnesty's Pakistan researcher Mustafa Qadri explained in 2012 that, because of the drone program, "when we researched these cases, we found people were fearful of the U.S. the way they're fearful of the Taliban." Qadri continued, noting Pakistanis "have told us they’re taking sleeping tablets at night. They don’t know when they’re going to be targeted, if they'll be targeted, why they'll be targeted. That really is a shocking situation."
Fair herself admitted in her article in Lawfare that, in general, the scholarship around the U.S. drone program in Pakistan "produces mixed results, with some work showing the efficacy of leadership decapitation while other studies find that it is sometimes effective or even counterproductive."
Pakistani-American scholar Hassan Abbas joins a long list of experts who have argued that the U.S. drone program creates more militants than it kills.
The U.N., Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch have even said the Obama administration may be guilty of war crimes for its drone program. Renowned public intellectual Noam Chomsky, similarly, has characterized the U.S. government's extrajudicial assassination of militants via drone as a massive and illegal campaign of global terrorism.
Fair's response to most critics is to accuse them of either not being specialists (e.g., Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Prize-winning Pakistani teenager who has strongly criticized the U.S. drone program and warned President Obama it was fueling terrorism) or to claim they lack adequate data to justify their point.
After hearing Fair's rejection of the preponderance of studies on the U.S. drone program in Pakistan, Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center's Liberty and National Security Program at New York University School of Law, asked how Fair can "claim to be the only person who knows what Pakistanis think of drones."
The lone study
Fair says few researchers have been to Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in northwestern Pakistan, where most U.S. drone strikes take place. She argues, therefore, that they cannot know what Pakistanis there think.
I reached out to sociologist Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, who is from Pakistan's northwestern frontier region, near FATA, and has been researching the drone war for the past decade. Ahmad teaches at the University of Stirling and has written for years about the U.S. drone program. He is also the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War.
"Fair claimed that opposition to drones was a luxury indulged in by elites living in Lahore or Islamabad. In FATA, she said, drones were popular. As a matter of fact, it's only among the elites of Islamabad and Lahore that one usually finds Pakistan's few drone defenders," Ahmad said. "In FATA, outside a small Shia enclave, there is little support for drones."
"This is hardly a revelation, and it is backed up by numerous opinion polls," Ahmad added. Fair, however, argues that these opinion polls are flawed.
In her various media appearances and articles, Fair constantly points to a single investigation conducted by an Associated Press reporter by the name of Sebastian Abbot. The AP investigation was based on interviews with approximately 80 villagers at the sites of the 10 deadliest drone strikes in North Waziristan from 2011-2012.
Critics of this study point out that the sample sizes of both the strikes and the villagers are rather small. It uses a smaller sample size than that of the NYU/Stanford study, which Fair rejects. Moreover, from 2004 to February 2012, when the results of the AP investigation were released, the U.S. carried out at least 280 attacks in Pakistan's tribal region.
Ahmad called the AP report "dubious." It "refers to itself as a 'study' when all the reporter did -- even according to Fair -- is to dispatch a stringer into FATA to interview people," Ahmad said. "So we have this big chain of credibility to accept before we can credit that report. First, that the reporter has no agendas -- unlike the researchers she keeps accusing of -- and then that the stringer has no agenda."
"She assumes that anyone who confirms the official narrative has unimpeachable motives, but those who raise doubts, have axes to grind," Ahmad argued.
Recalling the people he has interviewed in Pakistan, Ahmad explained that, beyond "the much-reported civilian deaths, the drones also take a heavy psychological toll. They disrupt normal life and, given their penchant for mistakes, hang over every head like a lethal sword of Damocles."
"It would only take someone insane to suggest that people living under this terror welcome drones — and, as it happens, Fair's source for her fatuous claims is a zany fabulist," Ahmad remarked. "For years Fair based her claims about the drones popularity on a mythical survey carried out by Farhat Taj, a graduate student residing in Norway, for something called 'Aryana Institute.'"
Ahmad accused Taj of making up the fact that there is support for U.S. drone strikes in FATA. He also pointed out that her "institute was a letterhead organization which only maintained a web presence for a year before vanishing. It seemed to have existed only for the purpose of this report (which was duly picked up by international media). Its claims were refuted within months by a poll conducted by the New America Foundation and Terror Free Tomorrow," Ahmad explained.
Leading publications including Reuters and The New York Times quoted Taj and the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy (AIRRA) in defense of the U.S. drone program in 2009 and 2010. The Times' link to the alleged organization's website AIRRA.org, however, is now and has long been dead. Internet web archive the WayBack Machine shows that the website was up in 2009, but, by 2011, it had been taken down.
At the time of the controversy, Ahmad wrote in Al Jazeera about "The magical realism of body counts." He pointed out that, despite the insistence of Fair to the contrary, it was in fact AIRRA's conclusions that "can fairly be described as deeply unreliable and dubious." Ahmad also noted that AIRRA's findings were later even debunked by another pro-drone organization.
"Few wondered why the survey's claims were so at odds with known public opinion in the wider region where, according to a Gallup/Al Jazeera poll conducted around the same period, only nine per cent of people showed support for the drone attacks," Ahmad wrote at the time. "Those who did wonder, such as the journalists I spoke to in Peshawar, were universally dismissive. But the Institute had served its purpose and, typical of many NGOs, it vanished after a year."
Despite this, Fair has quoted and continues to quote Farhat Taj in numerous articles and books. Fair draws on Taj in her 2014 book Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army's Way of War. Taj is also cited in Pakistan's Enduring Challenges, a 2015 volume edited by Fair. She again cites Taj in her 2014 Political Science Quarterly article "Pakistani Opposition to American Drone Strikes."
Squaring the circle, Farhat Taj also quoted Fair in her own book, Taliban and Anti-Taliban.
After the Al Jazeera debate, Fair continuously shared op-eds that were written by Farhat Taj in 2009 and 2010. Fair used the six-year-old articles expressing the opinion of just one Pakistani from FATA to imply that it is representative of the opinions of Pakistanis living in the overall region.
"With the 'survey' rug pulled from under her feet, Fair has moved to anecdote," Ahmad explained. "She now claims the popularity of drones is proven by the fact that FATA denizens call them 'ababeel,' in reference to a Quranic story about a flight of birds that destroyed the invading armies of Abraha, the King of Abyssinia, by dropping stones on them." Fair mentioned this alleged story in her Al Jazeera interview.
The problem with this anecdote, Ahmad contended, is that there is no documentation of it. "This story also took root only in Farhat Taj's imagination," he said.
Government revolving door
Critics have pointed that, aside from Fair's outright rejection of an enormous body of research and double standards vis-à-vis the studies that have results that she likes, Fair also has a history of working with the U.S. government in a way some researchers would consider problematic.
Fair worked for almost 10 years for the RAND Corporation, a U.S.-based global think tank that scholar Chalmers Johnson has described as "a key institutional building block of the Cold War American empire" and "the premier think tank for the U.S.'s role as hegemon of the Western world." Fair also served for three years at the U.S. government's Institute of Peace and for several months at the U.N. Assistance Mission to Afghanistan. Since 2009, Fair has taught in Georgetown University's Security Studies Program.
In the fall of 2011, Fair received a $330,000 grant from the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad Office of Public Affairs. A year later, she received another approximately $330,000 grant from the same agency, to do a "survey of Pakistanis to understand the connection between media consumption and views towards Islamist militancy in Pakistan."
A professor who specializes in Pakistan but who asked to remain off the record expressed surprise in a message to me that these grants were so large, explaining that researchers rarely ever get so much money.
I reached out to Christine Fair, to get her side of the story. We spoke for almost 40 minutes on the phone. Fair strongly denied that U.S. government funding has ever influenced her research, and said that the majority of the grant money went to pay a Pakistani survey firm.
The results of the survey funded by the U.S. Embassy were published in an article titled "Pakistani Political Communication and Public Opinion on U.S. Drone Attacks," co-written by Fair and two other scholars, in the September 2015 issue of the Journal of Strategic Studies. In the piece, the authors note that "Conventional wisdom holds that Pakistanis are overwhelmingly opposed to American drone strikes in their country's tribal areas and that this opposition is driven by mass media coverage of the loss of life and property the strikes purportedly cause." The authors reject this "conventional wisdom" and instead "contend that awareness of drone strikes will be limited because Pakistan is a poor country with low educational attainment, high rates of illiteracy and persistent infrastructure problems that limit access to mass media."
Despite the pro-drone conclusion of the study, Fair insisted the funding from the U.S. government did not influence it. She noted that the research was further complicated because the State Department officially "can't acknowledge" the drone program.
I heard from a source who asked to remain anonymous that Fair has done work with the CIA. Fair told me that she did some contractual work with the CIA while she was an employee at the RAND Corporation. She said she worked on two projects with the CIA, although the findings of only one were published, and it did not involve drones. "I'm afraid I can't say more than that," she added.
While working at the RAND Corporation, Fair said that most of her work involved Air Force and Office of the Secretary of Defense policy, but not drones.
Fair affirmed that she has nothing to hide and denied any conflicts of interest. "I'm an open book, as my C.V. indicates," she said. And, in her research, Fair argued she often comes to "conclusions that are very different from the USG line."
I asked Greenwald what he thought about Fair's work with the U.S. government. "I think that what destroys her credibility are her arguments and her claims, not her funding sources," he said. "But it is incredibly ironic that the person who runs around impugning everyone else's 'objectivity' and credibility has her own research funded by the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, something she invariably forgets to mention when she's maligning everyone else as biased."
Fair insists that her work with the U.S. government, which she says has granted her some privileges and access to resources that other researchers do not have to their avail, has not influenced her research. She is certainly not a dogmatist, and has publicly criticized some elements of U.S. policy in Pakistan.
Yet Fair continues to steadfastly assert that the drone program in Pakistan is fundamentally different from the drone program in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. And, in order to do so, she has continuously ignored an enormous body of evidence.
Writing in the Middle East Research and Information Project, scholar Sarah Waheed characterized Fair's work as "some of the most propagandistic writing in support of President Barack Obama's targeted kill lists to date."
"What Fair et al. are proposing is to educate Pakistanis about what the U.S. thinks is good for them. For these political scientists, the right kind of Pakistani possesses the right kind of knowledge: Drone strikes are for his or her own good," Waheed wrote. "It is with U.S. intervention, through drones and propaganda, that Pakistanis can be saved from their backwardness, their tribalism, their Islamism, their nationalism -- in short, themselves."
"If there is any doubt about the morality of drone strikes," Waheed proposes imagining "a reverse scenario: If Pakistan's intelligence agencies were launching drone strikes into the rural Midwest with the purpose of targeting extremist militias — and in the process were killing American children with impunity — it is doubtful that most Americans would stand for it."
Reacting to her work on drones, Ahmad ultimately summarized Fair as a "provocateur." "It is in the unfortunate nature of our media that a person who can shout the loudest and make the most outrageous claims is seen as necessary for drawing audiences to an otherwise somnolent forum," he said.
That Christine Fair has "become a go-to person for commentary on a subject as consequential as this," Ahmad added, "might explain why the policy around drones is so warped."