The U.S. drone campaign in Pakistan aimed at targeting al Qaeda and Taliban is again coming under intense scrutiny, and the debate comes against a backdrop in which U.S. public opinion about the use of drones in general sharply differs from the widespread opposition to the missile strikes among other nations.
A new report from Amnesty International investigating the strikes in Pakistan said its findings raised “serious concerns” over whether some of the killings have been unlawful and “may amount to extrajudicial executions or war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law.” The report comes at a time when Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a critic of the drone campaign, is to meet with President Obama, and when the United Nations has also raised questions about civilian deaths and U.S. transparency about the underpinnings of the program.
Americans largely support the use of drones to target extremists in countries like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. A March survey found 61% overall supported the strikes while 30% disapproved. The drone program had bipartisan support – majorities of Republicans (69%), Democrats (59%) and independents (60%) approved.
However, the drone operations are widely unpopular in the rest of the world. In 31 of 39 countries surveyed last spring, at least half of the publics disapproved of the attacks. At least three-in-four held this view in 15 of the countries. Aside from the U.S., the only countries where majorities supported the drone strikes were Israel (64%) and Kenya (56%). In Pakistan, they were opposed by 68% of the public.
A February survey of Americans did find that 53% were “very” concerned about whether drone strikes put the lives of civilians in danger, an issue raised by both the Amnesty International report and by a UN human rights investigator. Even among those who approved of the program, 42% say they are very concerned the attacks risk lives of innocent civilians.
One of the lesser concerns among the U.S. public at the time of the early 2013 survey was that the drone attacks would damage America’s reputation in the world. Only 26% said they were very concerned about that. About three-in-ten (31%) said they were very concerned about whether the attacks were being conducted legally.