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Jul 16, 2013 | Commentary

The newly elected government in Pakistan has spoken of halting the contentious unmanned US aerial vehicle (UAV) or drone attacks on Pakistani soil. However, these hopes were delivered a blow in recent weeks, when the US targeted al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters with a drone strike in the North Waziristan Agency of the Federal Administered Tribal Area (FATA), killing six suspected militants including “some high value targets” . The government of Pakistan immediately summoned the US envoy to Pakistan in order to protest the strike. Imran Khan, of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) or justice party, has since pushed for a debate in the National Assembly of Pakistan on the issue of drones, calling for military action against US drones operating in Pakistani airspace.

Since 18 June 2004, drone strikes have killed several senior ranking Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders, including Nek Mohammad, Baitullah Mehsud, Baddrudin Haqqani, Mullah Nazir, Maulvi Dadullah, Wali-ur-Rehman, Abu Kasha Al-Iraqi and Saleh Al-Turki.  But it has also killed, according to varying and often disputed estimates, scores of civilians.

Last month, President Barack Obama delivered a speech on the future for the U.S. war against terrorism at the National Defense University in Washington, DC in which he addressed the use of drones. In his speech, President Obama stated, “We [the US] only target al-Qaeda and its associated forces…our actions are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty…. we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat.”  He continued, “It is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in all wars. For the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss.” The U.S. President made no mention of ending or curtailing the controversial practice of “signature” strikes, which target groups of men based on behaviour patterns associated with terrorist activity, as opposed to “personality” strikes, which target specific individuals with verifiable links to terrorist organizations.

Deaths caused by drone attacks, whether civilian or militant, are difficult to accurately assess, as different groups offer varying estimates. The New America Foundation estimates that since 2004 there have been 357 US drone strikes, killing an estimated 2,021–3,350 people, including 258-307 civilians, 1,567-2,713 militants and 196-330 unknowns. The accuracy of killing al-Qaeda or Taliban militants is estimated to be between 84-95 percent. Conversely, the PTI has pegged the number of civilian deaths at more than 3,000, although without providing supporting evidence. President Obama disputes the assessment of NGO reports on civilian death tolls, but fails himself to offer clear contrary evidence. The same is the case with the Government of Pakistan, which has not made their recorded data public. Pakistan has also blocked physical access to the FATA, making it inaccessible to national and international media as well as rights-based advocacy and civil society groups. As such, the exact death toll of drone attacks in recent years is difficult to determine.

With an area of 27,000 square kilometers, including a 600-kilometer disputed border with Afghanistan, the seven million people living in Pakistan’s FATA are the most hard-hit victims of the war on terror.  Unfortunately, as S. Iftikhar Mursed writes, “the tragedy of Pakistan is that in this age of realism, its leaders are never realistic. They are creatures of absurd emotions, the consequences of which can be catastrophic.” Interestingly, Zmarak Yousefzai, who was born and raised in FATA and practices national security litigation in Washington, DC, writes that the residents of FATA, who have witnessed the impact of drone attacks first hand, are less opposed to the use of drones than the rest of the population of Pakistan.

To better understand this reasoning, I asked Yousafazi in a phone interview why he believed FATA residents to be in favour of drones. He replied:

“If you are a local Pashtun, why won’t you prefer drones? You have foreigners that have come to your land; they have taken over your land, home and village. You are a displaced person. And after all you are displaced, these thugs then invite drone attacks. Now, if there are no drones, you have three alternatives? (1) let the Taliban operate with impunity; (2) allow the U.S. to invade the border areas; or (3) allow Pakistani army to start operations. All the three options will cause more harm, civilian deaths and destructions”

Pir Zubair Shah, who was born and raised in Waziristan FATA and is a Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, shares a similar opinion to Yousafazi. I reached him in New York for a phone interview. He explains:

“FATA’s residents favour drones because of their high precision and accuracy of killing Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders who have killed over 1,000 elders and have distorted the local egalitarian culture and traditions of Pashtuns (Pashtunwali) with Arab and many other foreign cultures. Above all, drones don’t displace people while over four million FATA residents have been displaced as a result of Pakistan Army’s operations since 2004. “

The ongoing honeymoon period being enjoyed by Pakistan’s new civilian government presents a good opportunity to abolish the colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulation legislation and extend the central government’s writ into FATA. This would help to advance good governance and key reforms to the security sector and beyond in the FATA. The time is ripe for PM Nawaz Sharif to pacify militants through dialogue, conciliation, and political dialogue, while urging the US to halt drones attacks without giving space to the jingoistic opposition’s rhetoric of shooting them down.Pakistan’s mainstream political leaders, as well as drone critics in the West, such as organizations like Code Pink, would do well to consult those most affected on the ground. Instead they have been concerned more with political point scoring than the goal of advancing peace, security and development in the FATA.


Jahan Zeb is a Research and Communications Intern with the Security Governance Group.