Drone Attacks – Divine Intervention or a Curse ?!

written as “current affairs” presentation writeup during 14th SMC at Lahore – 2013

News and statements regarding drone strikes in the north west of Pakistan have been in the media quite frequently since last 5 years and more so after the new government took over. The Prime Minister’s address to the General Assembly of the United Nations Organization (UNO) on 27 September 2013 raised the matter at that level for the first time[1]. Internationally too, Afghan President Karzai has opposed foreign incursions in Pakistan[2]. Similarly, the United States (US) Secretary of State, John Kerry, while concluding his visit to Pakistan in Aug 2013, pledged to end drone strikes “very, very soon” [3].

There is a noticeable dearth of information and comprehension on the Drone strikes due to lack of credible data. This has resulted in guess work on the actual purpose, target and collateral damage caused by such strikes, unanswered questions on the sovereignty issue when the geographical boundaries of Pakistan are breached and the motives and strategy of Taliban. The situation is further exacerbated due to confusing, and at times contradictory, policy statements by Pakistani authorities and the general perception of North Waziristan Agency as a hub of terrorism and a free for all for every foreigner illegally residing in Pakistan.

The purpose of the presentation is to try clarifying some of the misconceptions, work towards a better understanding of the issue and lay out a clear way forward, which is badly needed to alley the lingering doubts in everyone’s mind.


Un-manned Aerial Vehicles, called drones, were first used by the US in the war on terror in 2001 in Afghanistan and Yemen. However, it was in 2004 the first drone strike occurred in Pakistan in the restive North Waziristan Agency of Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Till date, in 322 strikes, all of them in FATA, a total of 2199 people have died[4].

While data on the strikes and the resultant casualties varies, the available data does show that 97% of the strikes and 92% of the resultant casualties have been in North and South Waziristan[5]. Furthermore, out of the 322 strikes, 35 % were on vehicles as surgical strikes.

The primary reason for a spike in casualties around year 2010 was a paradigm shift in US policy from ‘Personality strikes’ of the George Bush Jr. era to the ‘Profile strikes’ under Obama’s policy. Under the profile strikes[6], all young men of military ageundergoing any collective, suspicious activity, were authorized to be targeted, hence the “Others” in addition to High Value Targets, Civilians and Children.

In comparison to the 535 civilians, including 175 children, shown by international and national statistics to have been targeted by drone strikes, the Pakistani authorities, including the Army, have shown 400 civilians plus 200 probable non-combatants killed, during their interaction with, and as reported by, the United Nations Rapporteur during his last visit to Pakistan on 14 March, 2013[7]. Just for perspective, the Law Enforcing Agencies, including Army, Frontier Corps, Levies, Police and Khassadars, have lost over 8000 men.


The almost absolute percentage of strikes in North and South Waziristan, which is a confined and limited area in FATA, go towards the fact that it is a lawless bed of terrorism. A political officer familiar with, and having served for a long period there has stated that at any time there are over fifteen thousand foreigner terrorists in North Waziristan, obviously not on valid visa, ranging from regions and countries as far as Germany, China, the Arab countries, Chechnya, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and others.

The US strategy in drone strikes in quite obvious. It only targets those groups, especially the Haqqani group, which cross the border and attack its, and Afghan forces’, bases and bastions in Afghanistan. Strikes’ primarily target ‘bad taliban’ for US and not Pakistan. On a relative term, Pakistan calls them ‘good Taliban’ as they are not interested in terrorist activities in its territory and its ‘bad Taliban’ are those groups that have been spreading terror within its geographical boundaries, including the Tehreek Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

A big question mark is on the figures of collateral damage. While the international media and Pakistan have claimed roughly 400 individuals as the probable collateral damage, interview with the officers on ground does not corroborate such figures. Another political officer has stated that those locals killed in drone strikes were all reported to be involved in militancy and an officer heading an important organization in FATA has gone on to state that considering the non-local Taliban including foreigners and Punjabi Taliban in these two Agencies as well as the reports emanating out of the Agencies showing that no subsequent religious rites such as soyem and chehlum were held, it is a very plausible explanation that all such individuals were connected with militancy and non-local.

In contrast, the long range artillery fire and the indiscriminate aerial bombings carried out by our fighter jets and attack helicopters did lead to substantial collateral damage which was timely pacified with compensatory cash payments to the heirs, a PAF strike in Khyber Agency killing over 90 tribesmen[11].

Having said that, in the parameters of international law[12] there in no doubt, whatsoever, that the sovereignty of Pakistan is violated every time a drone enters our airspace.

However, we might not exactly be exercising sovereignty in North Waziristan atleast since the last four plus years. The situation on ground disproves even the rudimentary essentials of sovereignty. The local and universal writ is not there. No polio eradication campaign has been launched in North Waziristan since last one plus year. No Political Agent has left the confines of the fort in Miranshah and every one of them has used helicopter transport to travel to and fro from the Agency to Peshawar. Tax collection within the Agency is done by Taliban. The last symbolism of writ in a troubled area could be the free movement of the Armed Forces. Army units only move in North Waziristan after implementation of a dawn to dusk curfew on Road Opening Days and then too they suffer casualties nearly every week.

Any high profile kidnapping in Pakistan may originate from any area but would end up in North Waziristan, be it the former Governor Punjab, Salman Taseer’s son or the former Prime Minister, Syed Yousaf Raza Gillani’s.

The media has oft reported that there was a tacit understanding between the Pakistani government and Army and the USA on drone strikes, a fact endorsed on floor of National Assembly by the Government[13] and by Lt Gen Pasha (Ret), the former ISI chief, in his discourse before the Abbottabad Commission[14]. While re-opening the NATO supply line, any understanding and agreement on drone strikes, or their cessation, was not considered as an issue. 

Another factor is that no High Value Target has ever been hit by Pakistan, be it Maulana Fazlullah of Swat insurgency, Maulvi Umer Khalid of Mohmand, Maulana Faqir Muhammad of Bajaur, Mangal Bagh of Khyber, Hakeem Ullah Mehsud and numerous others. TTP’s mainstays, Baitullah Mehsud and Naik Muhammad, were killed by drone strikes – more certainly than probably on request of Pakistan Government.

The locals have labeled them as “Ababeel”[15] referring to the swallows dropping stones on the troops of Abraha when he attacked Ka’baa. One reason of their elation on these strikes could be that the tribes are apprehensive of, and unable to accord, support to the Government under Sec 22 of the Frontier Crimes Regulations, 1901 which envisages collective responsibility on the tribe on account of handing over anti-state element to the government and taking action against such individuals meanwhile. The well-equipped, heavily armed and quite well financed foreign militants are not an easy morsel to swallow.  However, the government and the Non Government sector have not been able to carry out any study on psychological and psychiatric effects of the drones, continuously hovering overhead, on the nerves and lives of the unfortunate citizens of Pakistan living in that area.

The United States has not been able to achieve remarkable results in drone strikes. The High Value Targets make less than 1.5 percent of the overall kills while the credibility and fortunes of the United States have suffered in Afghanistan and Pakistan both. Coalition fatalities have gone up from annual 12 to 400 over period 2011-2013[16]. Similarly the popularity of United States over the same period has gone down from 21 to 12 %[17] despite providing support of billions of dollars to Pakistan including Coalition Support Fund of $ 10,687 million.

On the other side the threat of Taliban is turning serious. Taliban have been labeled as carrying out harsh interpretation, unprecedented violence and intimidation by Amnesty International[18]. Taliban’s ambitions are for a revolution, disrupting and dislodging the democratic system in Pakistan[19]. Over 17500 civilians have died in terrorist activities in Pakistan[20] while the Prime Minister has recently given the figures of 40,000[21].

Pakistan has recently approached the UNO for a case against the US in respect of drone strikes but such pleas are referred to the International Court of Justice. The US has already withdrawn from its compulsory jurisdiction in 1986 and the recommendations of the Court land before the Security Council where US has veto power[22], so there are bleak chances there except an exercise to highlight the issue at the international forum.


From the above analysis it is crystal clear that the drones strikes are a curse for all stake- holders except the Taliban. The United States has lost popularity in Pakistan and now has a testy relationship with a time-tested friend. Besides, even if signature strikes have eliminated around 3000 probable Taliban, there is no let up in attacks against its armed forces in Afghanistan and the casualty count has increased many-fold.

Serious doubts have been cast over the sovereignty exercised by Pakistan over its territory, aggravated by our inability to respond aggressively to the drones flying inside our boundaries. The seeming impotency of our government and Armed Forces in the eyes of general public is a constant sore point for them, further amplified by the lack of any clear policy and strategy.

The common citizens in FATA particularly and in rest of country generally are skeptical regarding the inability of the Law Enforcing Agencies to take out known, and located, leaders of terrorist and militant organizations despite boasting of latest capabilities and resources.

The public continues to suffer incessantly with nearly daily bombings and killings. TTP has conveniently spread till Karachi and is now a force to be reckoned with in urban hubs too. With Punjab the only area with a relative, but restive, calm the citizens live in perpetual fear of the unknown.

Regardless of any side’s stand on drone strikes, the fact is that around 50 High Value Targets have been taken out through these strikes. With the global spread agenda of Al Qaeda and Taliban, it would only be a matter of time before they spread their tentacles all over the country. With a common agenda, the Taliban do not differentiate between good or bad Taliban and the geographical spread of the activities across Pakistan remedies not medicine but surgery to remove this cancer.


In light of the fact that militarily and strategically we may not be able to unilaterally stop incursions of drones into Pakistani territory, it would be appropriate to build international pressure to hasten action on the policy statements of Barack Obama and John Kerry regarding ending drone strikes ‘very very soon’. The case at the United Nations should be properly developed, instituted and pursued with requests for support from friendly countries to build visible international pressure.

Now is also the time to enter into a strategic dialogue with the United States on every clause of Pakistan’s relationship with them. The strategic and tactical understanding should be re-positioned in accordance with the wishes of the people and any agreements, overt or covert, should be brought before the Parliament for its sanction, or otherwise, in full view of public.

Drones have proved effective and therefore the tacit understanding should be reduced to workable action plan, hinging on joint strikes on High Value Targets for both sides, irrespective of classification of good or bad Taliban.

The lack of writ in North Waziristan and presence of foreign militants in considerable numbers without any check casts a serious doubt, internationally and nationally, on our will and ability to take decisive action against militants who pose a threat to the whole world. In such circumstances, and when the Armed Forces are also willing, political leadership should decide early on defined military operation backstopping by a robust advocacy campaign for the general public informing them about the blow-back in shape of increased terrorist activities for a short period, to mentally prepare them for every eventuality.


[1] Iqbal, Anwar and Masood Haider, “Sharif defends talks with Taliban, seeks end to drone strikes”, Dawn, 27 September 2013

[2] The News International, “Drone strikes ‘issue between Pakistan, US’: Karzai”, http://www.thenews.com.pk/article-105130-Drone-strikes-issue-between-Pakistan,-US:-Karzai

[3] “John Kerry pledges early end to Pakistan drone strikes John Kerry pledges early end to Pakistan drone strikes”,  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-23545221

[4] FATA Secretariat and “Drone attacks in Pakistan: 2005-2013” http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/pakistan/database/Droneattack.htm

[5] FATA Secretariat

[6] Tabassum Zakaria and Mark Hosenball, “US guidelines could reduce drone strikes”, The Nation, 25 August 2013

[7] Statement of the Special Rapporteur following meetings in Pakistan, office of the High Commissioner Human Rights, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=13146&LangID=E

[11] Said Nazir Afridi and Ashrafuddin Pirzada, “60 civilians killed in Tirah bombing”, 11 April, 2010, http://www.defence.pk/forums/pakistans-war/54219-pakistan-army-air-strike-kills-dozens-civilians.html#ixzz2fvnbr0WY

[12] N.A.Maryan, International Law – Law of Peace, (Great Britain: Butler and Tanner Limited, 1982), 160  

[13] The Express Tribune, http://tribune.com.pk/story/443342/pakistan-clears-airspace-for-us-to-conduct-drone-strikes-report/

[14] Drones ‘useful’, Pasha, The Nation, 11 July 2013, http://www.nation.com.pk/pakistan-news-newspaper-daily-english-online/editorials/11-Jul-2013/drones-useful-pasha

[15] Farhat Taj, “Analysis: Dangerous abyss of perceptions”, Daily Times, 30 January 2013

[16] icasualties.org/oef

[17] Richard Wike, “Does Humanitarian Aid Improve America’s Image?”, 6 March 2012, http://www.pewglobal.org/2012/03/06/does-humanitarian-aid-improve-americas-image/

[18] Amnesty International, “As if hell fell on me”, 2010

[19]“TTP focused on ending democracy – Hakimullah Mehsud”, tribune.com.pk/story/542440

[20] satp.org/casualties.htm

[21] Iqbal, Anwar and Masood Haider, “Sharif defends talks with Taliban, seeks end to drone strikes”, Dawn, 27 September 2013

[22] Article 36(5) of the UN Charter, Articles 35, 37 and 55 of Statutes of International Court of Justice

Tagged as: