Pakistan: Why Drones Don’t Help

Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians from US Drone Practices in Pakistan

a report by the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic at Stanford Law School and the Global Justice Clinic at the NYU School of Law
165 pp., available at
Athar Hussain/Reuters
Protesters at a rally against drone attacks, Karachi, Pakistan, May 2011. Their sign says, in Urdu, ‘Oh cruel leaders, allow us to shoot down drones.’

US drones operated by the CIA first struck in Pakistan in July 2004. According to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), there have now been a total of 367 such strikes. These have reportedly killed between 2,541 and 3,586 people in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the seven regions including North Waziristan and South Waziristan that border Afghanistan. The tribes on either side of the border were officially cut in two when the Durand Line between the countries was established in 1893, but in practice the border is porous. Of the 3.5 million people who live in the FATA, most are Pashtuns, a group of tribes that claim common ancestry, divided into many subtribes and clans.

The frequency of US drone strikes in Pakistan has been strongly linked to US troop levels in Afghanistan. During the four and a half years that the drone campaign was conducted by President Bush, the American contingent in Afghanistan was typically 20,000–30,000 troops. Fifty-two drone strikes on Pakistan were conducted in this period. President Obama ordered a vastly intensified counterinsurgency operation that saw US troop levels in Afghanistan rise to 100,000. Under Obama’s command, drone strikes on Pakistan likewise spiked to 315.

This link has been maintained since forces began withdrawing from Afghanistan in 2011. US drone strikes in Pakistan began diminishing that year as well: from a peak of 128 in 2010, they fell to seventy-five in 2011 and forty-eight in 2012. Nonetheless, the tempo of US drone strikes in Pakistan today remains considerably higher than it was under President Bush.

Living Under Drones, an excellent report by researchers at the Stanford and NYU law schools on the impact of US drone strikes in Pakistan, fails to give prominence to this declining number of drone attacks. (It was published last September, before full-year data for 2012 became available.) But it remains a vital and important document. The US government provides little public information on its drone campaign. The Pakistani government restricts journalist access to the tribal areas. Citizens of both countries should welcome the report’s attempt to provide a rigorous accounting.

If there is any misconception that the drone strikes are primarily counterterrorist in nature, aimed at key leaders of international terror networks, this can be dispensed with. The report from Stanford and NYU highlights research separately conducted by Reuters and by the New America Foundation that comes to similar conclusions: the elimination of “high-value” targets—al-Qaeda or “militant” leaders—has been exceedingly rare—fewer than fifty people, or about 2 percent of all drone deaths. Rather, “low-level insurgents” have been the main targets of drones. The US drone campaign in Pakistan is thus largely a counterinsurgency operation, targeting men presumed to be intent on…

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