Conflict & Justice

Do US drone attacks in Pakistan work?


US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) speaks with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the Prime Minister's House in Islamabad on August 1, 2013. Kerry invited Pakistan's prime minister to talks with President Barack Obama, seeking to upgrade fractious ties dominated by rows over drone strikes and Islamist militants.


Aamir Qureshi

LAHORE, Pakistan — Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif addressed the United Nations General Assembly on Friday, telling the audience that drone strikes violated his country’s sovereignty and caused civilian deaths. This is the first time that the leadership of the nation approached the world body to voice its concerns about the CIA run strikes which began in 2004.

“The use of armed drones in the border areas of Pakistan is a continued violation of our territorial integrity. It results in casualties of innocent civilians and is detrimental to our resolve and efforts to eliminate extremism and terrorism from Pakistan,” he said.

There is little indication, however, that the US will put an end to its drone campaign in the tribal areas in the near future, despite Pakistani protests and a promise made by Secretary of State John Kerry in August that US drone strikes would end “soon.” Indeed there have been two drone strikes in North Waziristan in as many days since Sharif’s speech.

The latest attacks further heat up the situation in Pakistan after Shahzad Akbar, a legal fellow with British human rights group Reprieve, was recently denied a visa to attend a congressional hearing scheduled for October 1 to hear testimony from survivors of a drone attack.

The mother of Rafiq-ur Rehman, Akbar’s client, was killed and two of Rehman’s children were injured in a CIA strike in North Waziristan last year. Now without their lawyer to accompany them, Rehman and his children are considering abandoning their trip to the US altogether.

Speaking at the UN last week, President Barack Obama claimed that his country had restricted the use of drones, but refrained from giving a timetable of when the attacks would stop altogether.

This is because America views the drones as an indispensable tool in eliminating al Qaeda and Taliban militants holed up in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, experts say. But putting aside the question of violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty, the effectiveness of the covert targeted killings program has often been called into question by academics, seeking to study if it has enabled the US to achieve its objectives in the war against terrorism.

Two research teams from Stanford and New York University Law Schools conducted a nine month long investigation into drone attacks in Pakistan. Their study, titled ‘Living under Drones,’ came up with a little-known revelation: “One known terrorist is killed for every 49 deaths in a drone strike in Pakistan.”

In an interview, co-author of the study Stephen Sonnenberg said, “Our study is by two US institutions which aim to document the tangible contribution to everyday trauma in North Waziristan that the US directly controls.”

The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism puts the highest number of civilian deaths in drone attacks in Pakistan at 926. Of those, the Bureau says that up to 200 were children. The considerable death toll seems to be in direct contradiction to President Obama’s claim at the UN that “now there is a near certainty of no civilian casualties in the strikes.”

But there is another side of the coin. The US has noted that the strikes have killed several “high value” targets, including al Qaeda's second-in-command, Abu Yahya al-Libi; al Qaeda's senior commander in Pakistan, Ilyas Kashmiri; and on September 6th, Sangeen Zadran, a leading figure in the Haqqani network.

Some experts however refuse to accept American assertions that drone attacks are precision strikes which target only al Qaeda and its affiliates. “For one militant killed, at least eight other civilians are also killed in a drone attack,” said retired Brigadier Mehmood Shah. He served as Pakistan’s tribal affairs secretary in the early 2000s.

Others say the picture is more intricate.

“In drone attacks, very few innocent people are killed,” said Pir Zubair Shah, a Pakistani journalist from the tribal territory of South Waziristan who has written on drone strikes in Pakistan for GlobalPost. “And when they are killed they are in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Shah alleges that Pakistani intelligence agencies fabricated the high civilian death toll in US drone attacks in the country, in order to use it “as a leverage with Americans for their own purposes like getting aid.”

One of the complexities is revealed by the research of Pakistan’s nonprofit Center for Research and Security Studies. Center chairman Imtiaz Gul said his organization has done cased studies of 25 drone attacks in which non-combatants had been killed, through field research in the tribal areas. One thing they have uncovered: “While calculating civilian casualties in drone attacks,” said Gul, “there is also a need to be aware that militants take families as human shield when they stay in an area.”

While debate continues over the statistics and usefulness of drone strikes, Pakistanis say they have one very clear impact. “The people in tribal areas are becoming more anti-American, because of drone attacks, than the rest of the country,” said Mehmood Shah. “Some of them are even practically joining forces which are against the US.”

Nationwide, 74 percent of Pakistanis viewed America as an enemy in a Pew Global Attitudes Poll late last year.

“Drones are tactically very effective in Pakistan,” said Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project, a public policy research organization.  “But strategically they have huge costs.”

Michael Boyle, a former Obama counterterrorism adviser said the strategic costs could be global. Israel, Italy, Great Britain, Russia and China are all building drone fleets.

“The US drone attacks are creating a precedent which other nations will follow,” said Boyle, who believes the US should develop strategies to capture – not kill – its targets. “America will not be happy if, for example, China would use them against drug lords in Myanmar, or Russia would use the strikes against its dissidents.”

But not all experts believe that drones have gloomy implications for the future. “On an individual level drones would do less damage. For example Russia would have killed a lot less people in Chechnya, if it had used drones,” said Foust.

So while analysts argue over the efficacy of the targeted program in Pakistan, the onus is on the Sharif government to either take more drastic measures against the US to persuade it to halt the drone strikes, or continue to appease its powerful ally in the war against terrorism for the sake of cooperation.