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 fighting US forces across the border in Afghanistan.

In the media, the term “militant” is often used in describing drone casualties. The report makes clear that this blurs together two legally very different groups of people. A “militant” who is a member of the Taliban, planning to attack US troops, is not the same as a “militant” who normally herds livestock, carries a rifle, and today is sitting with other members of his clan to discuss a threat to his isolated village from a neighboring clan.

Furthermore, according to the report the “current administration’s apparent definition” holds that any male of military age who is killed in an area where militants are thought to operate (and where, therefore, drones operate) will be counted as a militant if killed. This has allowed administration officials to make wildly unrealistic claims, disputed by even the most conservative analysts of drone casualties, that civilian deaths are “extremely rare” or have even been in “single digits” since President Obama took office.

If you disregard this novel definition and then try to ascertain what category of person was actually killed, you will arrive instead at an estimate that some 411 to 884 civilians have died in US drone strikes in Pakistan, including 168 to 197 children. These figures are from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which the authors of Living Under Drones determine to be by far the most reliable of the three main strike data aggregators (the others being the New America Foundation’s Year of the Drone project and the Long War Journal of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies).

The report from the two law schools raises grave doubts about the legality of US drone strikes in Pakistan. In addition to questions around the program as a whole, specific practices are particularly troubling. These include targeting people who are not members of al-Qaeda or planning on fighting US forces in Afghanistan; so-called “signature strikes,” which involve attacking unknown people for gathering in groups or otherwise behaving like “militants,” rather than attacking known individuals; and the use of drones against those who try to bring aid to injured victims of drone strikes.


The report also paints a harrowing picture of the experience of the ordinary people, among the most impoverished in Pakistan, who live in the region. Witnesses repeatedly speak of how the destruction of their house, the loss of a wage-earning relative with many dependents, or the need to borrow in order to pay for the treatment of injuries has left their families destitute after a drone strike. One of the interviewees, Ahmed Jan, who told the researchers that he used to work as a driver before he was injured in a strike,

woke up in a hospital in Peshawar…and learned he needed five to six lakhs (approximately US $5,300 to US $6,350) worth of surgery to implant a rod in his leg and stop the bleeding from his nose and face. Since then, he has lost most of his hearing and the use of one foot.

He can no longer work and relies on his sons to support his household. In his own words: “Before the drone attacks, it was as if everyone was young. After the drone attacks, it is as if everyone is ill. Every person is afraid of the drones.”

Parents report taking their children out of school because of fears for their safety, and students speak of their diminished ability to concentrate. Social gatherings have been deeply affected, with many interviewees saying that “they were afraid even to congregate in groups or receive guests in their home.” Accounts such as these, so rarely heard, serve as a reminder that the harm from the US drone campaign goes beyond the significant toll of civilian lives lost.

Pakistani views of the US have grown more negative in the years of President Obama’s expanded drone campaign: 80 percent viewed America unfavorably in 2012, up from 63 percent in 2008, according to polls by the Pew Research Center. US drone attacks have likely played no small part in this deterioration. Pew found that 97 percent of Pakistanis who were aware of the strikes were opposed to them.

Perhaps as a reaction, the Obama administration has recently tried to make drone attacks more discriminating. TBIJ calculates that the minimum civilian share of drone casualties has fallen from 14 percent in 2011 to 2.5 percent in 2012. But this is likely to be too little, too late. The US drone campaign continues to bedevil US–Pakistan relations, featuring prominently in the Pakistani media and in the statements of leading Pakistani politicians.

What we have witnessed is a perverse turn of events. The US began its military intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 ostensibly to reduce the risk of terrorist attacks on America. Today, al-Qaeda has largely moved on from Afghanistan, and US troops there are engaged primarily in counterinsurgency operations, not counterterrorism. Counterinsurgency is also the main objective of US drone attacks in Pakistan.

But these drone attacks may well be undermining counterterrorism efforts in Pakistan itself. And this matters greatly because extremists in Pakistan pose a threat to Pakistan, to its neighbors, and to other countries, including the US. The threat is especially pronounced for the people of Pakistan, where some 40,000 have already died in a dozen years of terrorist and counterterrorist violence.

Pakistan is far too big for outsiders to police. At 180 million, its population is almost three times the combined total of Afghanistan and Iraq, countries where recent foreign military interventions have proved less than successful. Also, Pakistan, notwithstanding its continuing corruption and manipulation of votes, has a democratically elected government, over one hundred nuclear weapons, and an army of 600,000 soldiers. The country must be responsible for dealing with its own extremist groups.

Fortunately, despite its frequent inclusion in lists of failing states, Pakistan is not a basket case. It has well-established political parties, noisy private media, and an independent-minded supreme court. It ranks among the largest global producers of cotton, milk, and wheat, and has over 100 million users of mobile phones. Between 1952 and 2012, its annual GDP growth averaged 5 percent.

The main steps Pakistan needs to take in order to improve its situation seem clear: it should strive for a lasting peace with both India and Afghanistan; confront the extremist groups who kill foreigners abroad and Pakistanis at home, including Baloch, Ahmedi, Christian, Hindu, and Shia Pakistanis; and bring about a shift in spending from defense to investment in economically productive areas such as education and infrastructure (including water and electricity, which are both severely inadequate).

Frequently invoked as an explanation for the lack of progress in Pakistan is the intransigence of what is called a “deep state”—a secret, security-obsessed alliance between the Pakistani military and especially military intelligence, and militants such as the Taliban, along with extremist mullahs. Yet there are encouraging signs that the Pakistani armed forces may be changing. They recently adopted a new Army Doctrine that, for the first time, describes homegrown militancy, rather than India, as the “biggest threat” to national security. The document calls for a shift in training toward preparing for “sub-conventional” warfare against such groups, instead of battling conventional armies.


Pakistani politicians, too, are showing increasing maturity. An elected government has unprecedentedly served out its five-year term, and new elections will be held in May. Despite a rocky economy and failures to improve security, parties from all the major factions have refused to back calls for a behind-the-scenes “soft coup” of the variety that has often derailed democracy in the past. Moreover, there has been improvement in relations with Afghanistan, where a groundbreaking deal for Pakistan to help train the Afghan army is being discussed, and with India, where liberalization of trade and visa policies now seems likely despite recent tensions between the militaries of the two countries in Kashmir.

Still, it is undeniable that Pakistan has not yet done enough to counter the extremist groups on its soil, whether the Taliban or others. To understand why, it is worth tuning in to the country’s popular prime-time talk shows. There, a reflexive blaming of, variously, the US, India, Israel, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, or Iran—anybody but Pakistan—for Pakistan’s ills is unfortunately common. The result is a self-image of Pakistan as a pawn in someone else’s game. To turn on one’s TV in Pakistan is to find oneself entering a world permeated with conspiracy theories, an almost mythical space in which a refusal to accept that Pakistan can take the lead in solving its various crises seems not misguided but commonsensical.


Athar Hussain/Reuters

Imran Khan, right, leading the rally against drone attacks, Karachi, May 2011

The problem, for those who wish Pakistan to take more responsibility for itself, is that these conspiracy theories are not necessarily false. Indeed, many have elements of truth. India likely is striving to exacerbate the violent discontent in Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province, to the south of the tribal areas. (That discontent is rooted in the Pakistani state’s long-term mistreatment of the province’s local population.) Afghanistan has in fact refused to accept the territorial integrity of Pakistan. Saudi Arabia and Iran do back Sunni and Shia militant proxies in the country. The US has used a vaccination campaign as cover for an intelligence operation on Pakistani soil.

Conspiracy theorists have numerous examples they can cite in support of their positions. But perhaps none is as emotionally potent as the claim that flying robots from an alien power regularly strike down from the skies and kill Pakistani citizens. In the US, such a claim would be science fiction or paranoid survivor-cultism of the furthest fringe-dwelling kind. In Pakistan, it is real. And constantly, wrenchingly, in the news.

Among the most pernicious aspects of the US drone campaign in Pakistan is therefore this: that it facilitates the refusal of the Pakistani state and Pakistani society to do more to confront the problem of extremists who threaten Pakistanis and non-Pakistanis alike. Pakistani politicians find it far easier to blame highly unpopular drone strikes for Pakistan’s problems with extremism than to articulate concrete measures against specific extremist groups. President Asif Ali Zardari, whose government has endured heavy criticism for not preventing drone strikes from occurring, has said that “continuing drone attacks on our country, which result in loss of precious lives or property, are counterproductive and difficult to explain by a democratically elected government. It is creating a credibility gap.”

Shahbaz Sharif, a powerful opposition politician, has driven his rhetorical dagger into this gap, claiming that Zardari’s government, despite its denials, is actually helping US drone attacks. The popular cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, also lambasting the government for not stopping the drones, has taken an even stronger line. “These strikes have not reduced militancy,” he has said, in views widely echoed by the Pakistani media; “in fact [they] have been a major stimulant to terrorism.”

There was, of course, virulent extremism in Pakistan before US drone attacks began. There would be virulent extremism if US drone attacks ceased. But halting the attacks could quickly accomplish two things: end the obfuscating claim that drones are the cause of terrorism in the country, and make it less difficult for Pakistani politicians to advocate meaningful antiterrorism policies (rather than antidrone policies) without being branded lackeys of an America that regularly violates Pakistan’s sovereignty.

When foreigners intervene militarily in a region with disregard for sophisticated understandings of its internal dynamics, they tend, as recent history has shown, to fail horribly. The prevailing discourse in the West about Afghanistan and Pakistan is “simplistic, inaccurate, and alarmingly dehumanizing,” to quote the editors, Shahzad Bashir and Robert D. Crews, in their introduction to the essay collection Under the Drones. The consequences, they find, have been tragic; and the chapters that follow make it difficult to disagree with them.

An essay by Amin Tarzi, director of Middle East Studies at Marine Corps University, reminds us of the many ways in which leaders in both Afghanistan and Pakistan have used the permeable and uncertain nature of the border between their countries to undermine the state on the other side. The Pakistani security establishment, he writes, has long considered that it is an advantage to have a weak, divided, and pliable Afghanistan. It has been tragically willing to back blood-soaked proxies, such as the Taliban, to that end. Less well known, perhaps, is that, since Pakistani independence, Afghan governments have refused to accept the location of the border. They have continued to maintain claims to Pakistan’s territory west of the Indus—i.e., half of present-day Pakistan—and stoked Pashtun nationalism inside Pakistan by appearing to support the creation of “Pashtunistan,” an independent homeland for Pashtuns.

By intervening militarily in Afghanistan, the US thrust itself into the middle of this border dispute without adequately recognizing it as such. As a result, two successive American presidents have repeatedly failed to get Afghanistan and Pakistan to take joint responsibility for security in the border areas. Tarzi is surely right when he asserts that “a rearrangement of Pakistan-Afghanistan bilateral relations, beginning with resolving the difficult question of the common boundary between the two countries, seems a necessary ingredient” for peace in the region.

One of several other remarkable essays is by James Caron, a lecturer on Islamicate South Asia at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He shows, through a historical examination of the expressive arts of the Pashto-speaking region, that the folk figure of the “Talib”—or religious student, the singular of “Taliban”—is traditionally seen as romantic, antihierarchical, and opposed to the prevailing culture. There are obvious tensions between this folk figure and the present-day political-military group, but there are unexpected linkages as well. For instance, we read Caron’s surprising description of the young Mullah Omar, now leader of the Taliban, singing classical songs called ghazals on the day he lost an eye during the campaign against the Soviets in the 1980s. One of the lyrics went: “My illness is untreatable, oh, my flower-like friend/My life is difficult without you, my flower-like friend.” Caron suggests that such language allowed Taliban leaders to express their own “pious heroism” in terms familiar from courtly love poetry, and to construct a talib persona of “authoritative respectability” around their themes of “sincerity, earnestness, and morality.”

Also arresting is a folk story, elaborated upon by Caron, of a young man named Talib Jan and Pashtana (literally: “female Pashtun”). In a recently printed version of this story, the two fall in love, but while the poor, low-born Talib Jan is away, Pashtana is persuaded by her unscrupulous family to marry her rich, high-born (“khan”) cousin in London. Talib Jan dies of sorrow—pure, devoted to his love for Pashtana, and penniless—but after his death he comes to be venerated as a martyr. The story seems intended, Caron writes,

to convey…what is, for the author, the heartbreaking rejection of sincere talib morality by Karzai-era Afghan Pashtuns, and their “marriage” to khan-ism through the intervention of foreign brothers.

The anti-imperialist and anti- hierarchical echoes of this tale are clear, and quite different from accounts of nihilistic militants belonging to a death cult at war with freedom—or, for that matter, of Pashtun supremacists bent on subjugating other ethnicities. Many of the Taliban have certainly proved themselves murderous, vicious, and Pashtuncentric. But their self-perceptions and the ways their motives are embedded in Pashtun culture do not necessarily correspond to popular caricatures in the West.

Most of the essays in this book—including noteworthy pieces by Sana Haroon, Shah Mahmoud Hanifi, and Faisal Devji—come across as challenges, intent on debunking popular myths. In his essay on the Red Mosque in Islamabad, which was raided by the Pakistani government in 2007, for example, Devji argues that it does not make sense to compare the aggressive activists of the Red Mosque with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Many of the Red Mosque’s practices that Devji cites are unknown among the Taliban, such as the involvement of women and their deployment as activists “shoulder to shoulder” with men. The experience of reading Under the Drones may, for many readers, be one of constantly losing their footing, as they realize that the assumptions on which their views are grounded have only tenuous bases in fact. It is a feeling that, over the past dozen years, US military planners in the region will have come to know well.

As drone wars continue in Africa and Southwest Asia, we ought to remember that Western governments can be dangerously ignorant of these other regions. US policymakers are looking for a new approach to fighting terror after sustaining thousands of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. Drones do not expose their operators to the risk of physical harm and avoid the need for the large and costly deployments of troops with which the US public has grown weary.

So a widening and covert campaign heavily involving drone strikes might seem an attractive option. Already, the intensifying pace of strikes in Yemen (twenty-three in the second half of 2012) is on the verge of overtaking the reduced campaign in Pakistan (twenty-four in the same period). US drones have struck in Somalia, and there are plans to establish a base for US drones near Mali.

Yet to imagine that drone strikes are a panacea is to draw overly simplistic lessons from the wars of the past dozen years. Whatever the merits of toppling cruel and justifiably hated dictatorships in Iraq and Libya, these countries and their neighbors are today probably of more concern from the perspective of international terrorism than they were before.

Each country and region is different. But some states in Asia and Africa are trying to make transitions to democracy after years of despotic rule. During these transitions, they will often be weak. We ought, therefore, to reflect on the fact that strong states police themselves better than weak states. When states have elected governments, as is the case in Pakistan, and if the US drone strikes are unpopular, as they naturally are, the governments are likely to be made weaker, not stronger, by them. Few foreign military campaigns remain popular with locals for long.

Strengthening such countries will therefore depend on support for the complicated and unique internal political processes that can build in each a domestic consensus to combat extremists—who, after all, typically kill more locals than they do anyone else. International pressure and encouragement can help secure such a consensus. But it cannot be dispatched on the back of a Hellfire missile fired by a robot aircraft piloted by an operator sitting halfway around the world in Nevada.

—April 24, 2013