Drones series, Part I: Pakistan's decade of drones (2004-2014)

By Zoha Waseem:


‘Things fall out of the sky’

In June 2004, the first drone strike in Pakistan targeted a man who had rejected peace agreements with the government, sworn allegiance to the Taliban, and vowed to continue his ‘jihad’ against the United States in Afghanistan. The Pakistani military initially claimed responsibility for Nek Mohammad’s death, until more could be revealed about the drone programme. It was speculated that Pakistan granted CIA access into its airspace in order to take Mohammad out. This was to be the first of several hundred such attacks that neither the American nor Pakistani administrations were willing to officially acknowledge. Musharraf would later go on record to justify these attacks: ‘In Pakistan, things fall out of the sky all the time.’

Indeed, they would. Following the strike on Nek Mohammad, there would be 44 attacks under the Bush administration. The drone campaign initially made use of the notorious Shamsi Airfield near Quetta, leased to the CIA in 2001. In 2011, NATO forces opened fire on two Pakistani border check-posts in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), killing 24 Pakistani soldiers, unleashing a country-wide outrage, and resulting in Islamabad ordering the US to evacuate (Salala attack).

The total numbers of strikes in Pakistan have ranged from 330 to over 380, escalating dramatically under the Obama administration. Those targeted are suspected of belonging primarily to al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and various Pakistani and foreign jihadi organisations, including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The campaign in Pakistan has been largely restricted to FATA, a region where the concentration of militants has been overwhelming. Located northwest of Pakistan, FATA borders Afghanistan on the eastern side of the Durand Line. The tribal areas fall outside the writ of Pakistani law and governance – a weakness that the US and terrorists alike draw to their own advantages for respective onslaughts and campaigns.

Casualty Controversies

The calculation of civilian casualties has always been an area of contention. To an extent, this is understandable given the challenges of reporting from within the tribal areas. Additionally, the environment in FATA, their complex terrains and geographies makes it difficult to differentiate civilians from militants who blend in by living amongst locals.

Regardless, American and Pakistani authorities have not been forthcoming in acknowledging drone attacks or their casualties and the recognition of civilian deaths has been misleading. In March 2013, Pakistani officials claimed that between 400 and 600 civilians had been killed; in October, the Pakistani Ministry of Defence claimed the figure stood at 67 since 2008. A month later, Islamabad retracted the statement, claiming it was ‘wrong and fabricated’.

The table below summarises the data collected by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, New America Foundation and the Government of Pakistan on drone strikes in the country.

drones---Zoha---table* Of which 332 strikes were carried out under President Obama’s administration.
///////** According to a Special Rapporteur, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The CIA maintains these strikes are ‘surgically precise’. It has yet to officially acknowledge any civilian casualty.

The only game in town’

The question of Islamabad’s consent has been the centre of debates on drones in Pakistan. In one article, Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann wrote, ‘Behind the scenes, many Pakistani officials – including [former] president Asif Ali Zardari and [then] Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani – have supported the drone strikes, despite their occasional public protests.’ Local perceptions from within Pakistan suggest a majority of people believe they are carried out by Islamabad’s consent. Amnesty International’s Pakistan Researcher, Mustafa Qadri told Strife that Pakistan may have given tacit approval but there is no paper trail.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to President Obama last year, along with his plea to stop drone strikes, was little but a political move to show his countrymen that the Sharif government does not condone breaches of Pakistan’s sovereignty. Islamabad relies immensely on aid from the US. Telling the Americans what to do would mean disrupting an incoming flow of dollars; acknowledging approval for drones would result in a severe backlash from Pakistani militants and civil society alike; keeping the debate running under the shadow of dubious press releases, timely condemnations, and a lack of transparency, allows Islamabad to control resistance from within the Pakistani populace, appease local militants, and avoid upsetting allies in D.C.

Within the US, the debate has steadily been questioning American foreign policy in the war on terror. Mazzetti pointed out in his book, The Way of the Knife, that this ‘knife fighting’ is not as surgical as agencies claim. It ‘creates enemies just as it has obliterated them’ and has ‘lowered the bar for waging war’. Despite protests from the likes of David Kilcullen and Cameron Munter, Leon Panetta has notoriously described the drone programme as “the only game in town”.

An aspect that is often under-considered is how drones have contributed to militant propaganda. The TTP has repeatedly used the destruction caused by drones to further their ‘jihad’. Till 2009, estimates suggested the TTP and allied groups carried out suicide attacks in retaliation for drone strikes. Either way, civilians have been at the receiving end which has made it easier to instil anti-American sentiments within the aggrieved populace. As a result, the campaign has resulted in heated debates within Pakistan, leaving its citizens divided.

Local Debates, Perspectives and Impacts

The case against drone attacks within Pakistan has been most aggressively taken up by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf’s chairman, Imran Khan. The social and psychological impacts of drones are the main arguments put forth by Khan, who believes drones (and American presence in the region in general) have created terrorism in the country. Amnesty’s Qadri disagrees. ‘Drones are not the drivers of radicalization; local, social factors are’.

Qadri’s own investigations into the campaign (published in Amnesty’s report, Will I Be Next?) took him across Pakistan, making him critically aware of local perceptions. ‘The closer you get to FATA, the more sympathy you will find for drone strikes. People don’t like the Taliban. They are annoyed with terrorists. When you’re in such a violent region, people think, at least there are terrorists being killed [by drones]. It is not morally justified, but they are saying it out of frustration. [Drones] appear to be the least worst option out of some very bad options.’

A more extreme case for drone attacks was made by a columnist, Irfan Hussain. 2009 was known as ‘the year of the drone’ in Pakistan. Shortly after, Hussain asked, ‘If we condemn the Americans so vociferously over the drone campaign, should we not be more critical of the thugs who are killing far more Pakistani civilians?’ Hussain’s opinions are amongst the minority; the majority still protests against drones.

The anti-drone advocacy in Pakistan goes beyond the element of fear. Little is written about the rural-to-urban displacement of people since the start of the campaign. The displacement of people from northern areas to cities further strains the limited resources allocated for urban areas like Karachi. Conflicted cities, aggravated by an influx of IDPs, increase instability and deepen anti-American sentiments amongst the urban and liberal populace.

Moreover, the campaign has made Pakistanis doubtful about local and international humanitarian efforts. “It is difficult for aid agencies [including polio workers], local and foreign, to operate in these areas. Locals tend to think [these workers] are being used for spying”, points out Mustafa Qadri, resonating a view that has been prevalent since the Abbottabad raid of May 2001.

Another concerning matter is the lack of rehabilitation and reconstruction accompanying the campaign. Since there are no official agencies appointed for these efforts, groups such as Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the charity wing of Lashkar-e-Taiba, are able to sweep in to assist the locals, further propagating anti-Pakistani and anti-American rhetoric. Coupled with this is the fact that often two strikes occur consecutively at a given location; when locals reach the location following the first strike to provide assistance, a second hits. This makes local rescue operations much more difficult.

Internal impacts, popular dissent against drones and relations between the US and Pakistan may be contributing to a gradual decrease in strikes. In an unprecedented move, these factors led the Peshawar High Court to direct the government to move a resolution against the attacks in the United Nations. The historic verdict declared drones as ‘illegal, inhumane, and a violation of the UN charter on human rights’.

Last December, after pressure from Pakistan, the UN adopted a resolution on drone strikes, calling on the US to comply with international law. In March this year, the UNHCR held a third round of discussions on the draft resolution. Washington boycotted, refusing to supply UN any details about its programme

It is unclear whether the campaign will remain paused for the duration of negotiations between the Pakistan government and the TTP. It can be assumed that Pakistan may witness a decrease in the number of strikes as NATO withdrawal is undertaken from Afghanistan and as western interests shift from South Asia. Till then, it suffices to say that Pakistan’s decade of drones has caused yet another rift in the country’s socio-political fabric.



Zoha Waseem is a PhD researcher in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Her research focuses on urban violence, organised crime and conflicts in cities. You can follow her on Twitter @ZohaWaseem.

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