Drone strikes have disrupted the network of militant organisations in the tribal areas, but success is limited because of public disapproval
By Zia Ur Rehman
The Friday Times, 26 Aug-1 Sep, 2011
On August 22, A US drone strike targeting a vehicle in Mir Ali area of North Waziristan killed four, according to media reports from the region citing security officials. Attacks from unmanned drones, a supposedly secret programme started by the CIA in 2004 as a part of the US War on Terror, have increased in frequency in the last three years. The recent strike was the sixth this month. There have been 58 drone attacks since January this year, killing more than 475 people. The US carried out 118 drone strikes in 2010, 53 in 2009 and 36 in 2008, and overall killed between 1,650 and 2,588 individuals, according to the drones database of New America Foundation, a Washington based think tank. There were only nine drone strikes from 2004 to the end of 2007.
The killing of civilians in drone strikes is an important and politically charged issue in Pakistan and all mainstream political parties are exploiting it. According to different surveys, the drone strikes are highly unpopular among Pakistanis who view them as violations of national sovereignty and linked with growing Anti-American sentiments in the country. “Drone strikes kill innocent tribesmen while putting the sovereignty and security of the state at stake. The government must abandon the role of the frontline ally in the so-called war on terror,” said Sahibzada Haroon Rasheed, FATA head of Jammat-e-Islami, adding that drones and other such attacks were breeding terrorism. The parliament has twice passed resolutions condemning drone attacks, and there was a new attack in less than 24 hours each time, he added.
Residents of tribal region especially in North Waziristan live under a constant state of fear of being hit as dozens of drones hum the skies over the region. The attacks occur without any warning and are often outside areas of ongoing Pakistani military operations. Locals in North and South Waziristan refer to the drones as ‘Bangana’ – a Pashto word for wasp. “The drones frighten women and children who sometimes become the victims, especially if the intended targets are close to their homes,” said Allah Din Wazir, a resident of Mir Ali.
“The drones only hit militants when they are in residential areas and easily visible. But they usually remain in relatively safe hideouts in the surrounding mountains,” said Abdullah Khan, director of Conflict Monitoring Centre (CMC), an Islamabad-based research institute.
Civilian casualties in drone attacks are a big concern for human rights groups. Citing the March 17 drone attack in Datta Khel area of North Waziristan that killed at least 44 people including tribal elders, Khan said the victims were innocent pro-government tribesmen discussing mineral ownership rights. Thousands of Pakistani protestors took to the streets following the attack in Miranshah and a diplomatic stand-off between Islamabad and Washington ensued.
A recent study of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a British non-government initiative, has identified credible reports that 168 children had been killed in seven years of drone strikes in Tribal Areas, and that makes up 44% of the at least 385 civilians reportedly killed in these attacks. The bureau has also uncovered details of at least 1,117 injured who include militants and civilians, and adults and children. Their names and stories are rarely reported. Most of them were injured by flying debris and shrapnel or trapped in falling buildings. A Brookings Institution study suggests that drone strikes kill “10 or so civilians” for every militant killed.But assessments differ. Based on media reports, the New America Foundation estimates 80% of the people killed in drone strikes were Al Qaeda and Taliban militants. The accuracy rose to an astonishing 95% in 2010. This assertion was corroborated by Pakistan security official Maj Gen Ghayur Mehmood, who commands troops in North Waziristan, in a media briefing in Miranshah on March 9. Between 2007 and 2011, he said, 164 drone strikes had been carried out and over 964 terrorists had been killed. Of those who were killed, 793 were foreigners – Arabs, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Chechens, Filipinos and Moroccans.
There is no independent reporting in tribal areas and media organisations only rely on body counts released by security officials, said a Bannu-based journalist who covers drone attacks. The claims of security officials could not be relied on, he said.
Prominent militant leaders killed in drone strikes include Al Qaeda leaders Ilyas Kashmiri, Mustafa Abu Yazid, Tahir Yuldashev, Shiekh Muhammad Fateh al Masri, Sheikh Ihsanullah, Saddam Hussein Al Hussami, Abdul Haq al Turkistani, Mansur al Shami, Abdullah Said al Libi, and Pakistani Taliban leaders Baitullah Mehsud, Ibn-e-Amin, Nek Muhammad, Qari Muhammad Zafar, Sadiq Noor and Haji Omar Khan.”A large number of people killed were mere foot soldiers,” said Khan. “It is first time in the history of warfare that a spy agency is targeting ordinary fighters in such an expensive campaign,” he said. The drones were initially meant to hit only high-value targets.Americans gather intelligence through their own spies, who insert microchips in militants’ vehicles or throw them in their compounds. The chips are then tracked down and taken out by missiles fired from drones. That is why militant groups operating in North and South Waziristan kill people suspected of spying for the US and leave their bodies on the roadside often with notes that threaten other ‘traitors’.
Most of these killings are carried out by Ittehad-e-Mujahedeen-e-Khurasan (IMK), a relatively little-known militant organisation. The IMK is a coalition of all local militant outfits and various foreign groups operating in the region that was formed a year ago after a number of key militant leaders died in a series of drone attacks. Its main task is gathering intelligence and the identification and elimination of spies, a TTP associate told TFT.
“That is why no senior militant leaders have been killed in a drone attack in tribal areas since the beginning of 2011,” he said.
Although drone strikes have disrupted the network of militant organisations in the tribal areas, security analysts believe they bring the Pakistani public, who disapproves of the attacks, closer to the Taliban and undermine the state’s writ.
The writer is a journalist and a researcher who works on militancy and human rights. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org