The Real Story Behind the Pakistan Drone Strikes

Pakistani tribesmen shout slogans against the military operations in tribal areas and drone attacks during a demonstration near the federal parliament in Islamabad, Pakistan, Friday, Jan. 23, 2009. Hundreds of protesters Friday demanded an end to Pakistan military operations and U.S. missile attacks against Taliban militants in lawless areas bordering Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti) AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti

Fatima Bhutto, an Afghan-born Pakistani poet and writer, is most recently the author of Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter's Memoir (Nation Books, 2010). This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

With governments like Pakistan's current regime, who needs the strong arm of the CIA? According to Bob Woodward's latest bestseller Obama's Wars, when Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari, an obsequiously dangerous man, was notified that the CIA would be launching missile strikes from drones over his country's sovereign territory, he replied, "Kill the seniors. Collateral damage worries you Americans. It doesn't worry me."

Why would he worry?  When his wife Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan in 2007 to run for prime minister after years of self-imposed exile, she was already pledged to a campaign of pro-American engagement. She promised to hand over nuclear scientist and international bogeyman Dr. A.Q. Khan, the "father" of the Pakistani atomic bomb, to the International Atomic Energy Agency. 

She also made clear that, once back in power, she would allow the Americans to bomb Pakistan proper, so that George W. Bush's Global War on Terror might triumph.  Of course, the Americans had been involved in covert strikes and other activities in Pakistan since at least 2001, but we didn't know that then.
This has been the promise that has kept Zardari, too, in power.

According to the recent cache of State Department cables released by Wikileaks, his position and those of his colleagues in government haven't wavered. In 2008, for example, Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani enthusiastically told American Ambassador Anne Paterson that he "didn't care" if drone strikes were launched against his country as long as the "right people" were targeted. (They weren't.) "We'll protest in the National Assembly," Gilani added cynically, "and then ignore it." 

In fact, protests by the National
Assembly have been few and far between and yet, by the end of November, Pakistani territory had been targeted by American unmanned Predator and Reaper missile strikes more than 100 times this year alone. CIA drone strikes have, in fact, been a feature of the American war in Pakistan since 2004. In 2008, after Barack Obama won the presidency in the U.S. and Zardari ascended to Pakistan's highest office, the strikes escalated and soon began occurring almost weekly, later nearly daily, and so became a permanent feature of life for those living in the tribal borderlands of northern Pakistan.

Barack Obama ordered his first drone strike against Pakistan just 72 hours after being sworn in as president.

It seems a suitably macabre fact that, according to a U.N. report on "targeted killings" (that is, assassinations) published in 2010, George W. Bush employed drone strikes 45 times in his eight years as President.  In Obama's first year in office, the drones were sent in 53 times. In the six years that drone strikes have been used in the fight against Pakistan, researchers at the New America Foundation estimate that between 1,283 and 1,971 people have been killed.


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While the dead are regularly identified as "militants" or "suspected militants" in newspaper stories and on the TV news, they almost never have names, nor are their identities confirmed or faces shown.  Their histories are always vague. The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) took a careful look at nine drone strikes from the last two years and concluded that they had resulted in the deaths of 30 civilians, including 14 women and children.  (Perhaps, of course, superior American military intelligence classified them as "militants in training.")  Based on this study, an average rate of error can be calculated: 3.33 civilians mistakenly killed in each drone attack. The dead, Pakistanis will assure you, are largely unnamed, faceless, unindicted, and un-convicted civilians.

Pakistanis are considered irrelevant, however, and collateral damage, as it turns out, doesn't seem to worry anyone in the governing elite.
Think of it this way: this summer, monsoon rains and floods submerged one-fifth of Pakistan, affecting 20 million people.  It was the country's worst natural disaster in its history. Although the body count, under the circumstances, was considered comparatively low -- 2,000 killed -- the United Nations concluded that the destruction caused by the floods surpassed the devastating Asian tsunami of 2004, the Pakistan earthquake of 2005, and the recent earthquake in Haiti combined.

Two million homes were destroyed and the crucial food belt in the key agricultural provinces of Punjab and Sindh was ravaged.  Millions of children were left homeless or at risk of contracting cholera, dysentery, and other water-borne diseases. According to the World Heath Organization, 1.5 million potentially fatal cases of diarrhea and another two million cases of malaria are still expected.

During what U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon termed the worst disaster he'd ever seen, with the country desperate and prostrate, the CIA launched its most extensive drone campaign yet. Over the 30 days of September, as Islamabad rushed to assure Washington that it would not divert too many troops from the war effort to help with flood relief, 20-odd drone strikes were called in. They would produce the highest number of drone fatalities for a single month in the last six years.

In 2009, in one of the many State Department cables Wikileaks loosed on the world, U.S. Ambassador Anne Paterson confirmed that key player and Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Kayani directed his forces to aid those American drone strikes.  Various U.S. operations in the country's northern and tribal regions were, the ambassador wrote, "almost certainly [conducted] with the personal consent of… General Kayani." 

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