The recent drone attack that reportedly killed Al-Qaeda leader Abu Hafs al-Shahri in Waziristan is the latest result of a Central Intelligence Agency campaign that began in 2004. Pakistan has protested against U.S. drone attacks, considering them a violation of its sovereignty.
Such protests have been ineffective. Strikes by the pilotless predators have increased since President Barack Obama took office in 2008. The United States considers them so effective that it is seeking a further expansion of drone operations in Pakistan, "The Washington Post" reported.
Many Pakistanis say the drones kill too many civilians and therefore should be stopped. On September 19, Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, an adviser to Pakistan’s prime minister, told reporters that in order to build diplomatic pressure against drone attacks, the federal Ministry of Human Rights has decided to bring the issue before the United Nations.
In April, speaking to parliament hours after dual drone strikes killed six suspected militants in Waziristan, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani condemned the raids and said the Foreign Ministry had lodged a complaint with the U.S. Embassy, reiterating its stance that such attacks are counterproductive.
However, drones are considered one of the most sophisticated of modern-day weapons -- more precise than regular missiles -- and have the ability to verify targets without risking the lives of pilots. A recent study conducted by the New America Foundation shows that the 270 reported drone strikes in northwestern Pakistan from 2004 to the present day have killed between 1,661 and 2,601 individuals, of whom around 1,368 to 2,130 were described as militants in reliable press accounts. Thus, the civilian casualty rate since 2004, according to this analysis, is approximately 20 percent. The report states further that 35 militant leaders were among the killed insurgents.
This study proves two points.
One, civilian deaths are not as high as Pakistani media, religious leaders, politicians, and other analysts have been claiming. The analysts question the claims of high civilian casualties because no media outlet or organization has ever published the names of those killed, their villages, dates, and the locations of the drone attacks. According to analysts, in a bid to minimize their losses, the insurgents try to conceal the identities of their associates killed in the attacks. They collect their comrades’ bodies and, after burying them, issue statements that all of the victims were innocent residents.
Secondly, Pakistani complaints about drone attacks would carry more weight if the Pakistani government showed more concern over the Haqqani network and Al-Qaeda safe havens in North Waziristan, where most of these drone attacks have occurred. Despite repeated American demands to launch a sincere military operation to eliminate these hideouts, Pakistan has refused to do so.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently said the Haqqani network, blamed for carrying out deadly attacks on coalition and Afghan forces in Afghanistan, will not be tolerated and that Pakistan should eradicate it. However, General Ashfaq Perviz Kayani will continue to resist going after the Haqqanis as they are a long-term asset of Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency, the ISI.
Talking with Radio Pakistan, Cameron Munter, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, openly said they have evidence of Haqqani ties to the Pakistani government. The bottom line is that Islamabad does not seem to show any flexibility toward changing its strategic stance on these issues. In a situation like this, the only option the United States has is drones.
No Leg To Stand On
The fact that Al-Qaeda leaders (including Osama bin Laden, who was living in the garrison city of Abbottabad just a couple of hours' drive from Islamabad), foreign fighters, and Haqqani-led Afghan Taliban all live in Pakistan damages Pakistani credibility when it asks that drone attacks be stopped in respect of the country’s sovereignty. If American drone strikes violate Pakistani sovereignty, what about all of the foreign militants who not only launch attacks across the border into Afghanistan but are also a huge security threat to the people of Pakistan?
Farhat Taj, a Pashtun doctoral research fellow at the University of Oslo and author of the newly published book "Taliban And Anti-Taliban," believes that “the people of Waziristan are suffering a brutal kind of occupation under the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. It is in this context that they would welcome anyone -- Americans, Israelis, Indians, or even the devil -- to rid them of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Therefore, they welcome the drone attacks.”
Drone attacks obviously come with costs, but they are the best of a bad set of options.
Bashir Ahmad Gwakh is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL