Pakistani tribesmen gather for funeral prayers before the coffins of people killed in a U.S. drone attack on June 15 in North Waziristan
Credit: Thir Khan

In case you missed it, over the weekend the new U.S. defense minister, and former C.I.A chief, Leon Panetta, told the New York Times that the defeat of Al Qaeda was within reach. In fact, he said that if the United States could capture or kill about 10 or 20 terrorist leaders believed to be based in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, then the war would be won.

To this end, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is pursuing a strategy of intensifying the use of unmanned drones in all three countries. Pakistan is already well accustomed to this strategy. It began under former U.S. President George W. Bush in 2004, but became much more frequent when Obama took office in 2008. Having killed hundreds, by some estimates more than a thousand, civilians, the faceless strikes have gone along way in fraying relations between the two countries.

(GlobalPost in North Waziristan: Obama's Hidden War)

Pakistan ordered the United States to leave its base in the western part of the country, from where it was launching the drones, on June 29. In response, the United States cut military aid to Pakistan by $800 million. Despite this kind of public back and forth, the drones continue to strike at a pace never seen before.

And there appears to be no end in sight as Pakistan becomes the preferred front in the war on terror, and both Yemen and Somalia are now gearing up for increased attacks as well.

So, the question arises, how many drone strikes will it take to finish off Al Qaeda?

These days, the Pentagon has in its fleet about 7,000 aerial drones. A decade ago it had a mere 50.

According to various media sources, there were 11 drone attacks in Pakistan in June, killing about 100 people. That is up from six in May, which killed more than 40. And, most strikingly, it is up from nine in all the years between 2004 and 2007.

June was also the first time there were multiple drone strikes in a single day.

The number of senior militant leaders killed in June? One. The number of civilians? No one really know because they don't keep track.

U.S. and Pakistani officials announced on June 3 that Ilyas Kashmiri, Al Qaeda's operational commander in Pakistan, had been killed in a drone strike. Six others were killed in the same attack. Some, however, have raised doubts about the announcement. It wouldn't be the first time Kashimri was thought to have been killed.

In fact, the Washington Post reports that most of those killed in drone attacks are either militants of so little import they don't make it on to U.S. watchlists or they aren't militants at all. The Post says that of the 581 suspected militants killed in drone attacks in 2010, only two were considered to be high value targets.

The way this June went, and June went better than most, it will take another 200 drone strikes and the deaths of at least 2,000 more people over the next several years before the 10 or 20 men Panetta is looking for are killed or caught, and that's a conservative estimate.

And so the drones drone on.

Related Stories