Analysis: US drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas create backlash

The distant sound of a rotor propelling an armed drone at about 10,000 feet is there day and night in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) near the border of Afghanistan.

On March 17, 2011 in the North Waziristan village of Datta Khel, a US Predator drone could not be seen and the terrifying, dull hum of an unmanned aerial vehicle was likely to have been drowned out by the normal morning bustle of the shops and street vendors in the town center as residents went about their normal daily lives.

A group of men in traditional robes and turbans gathered near the bus depot for a jirga, a traditional local forum for dispute resolution in the FATA. They were a majority of maliks, or tribal leaders, some khassadars, or government employees, and reportedly at least four were local Taliban leaders. They sat in two separate circles, as is customary in a jirga, to resolve a dispute between two parties over the rights to a nearby chromite mine. It was 10:35 A.M.

And then without warning, the distinct hiss of a missile followed by a deafening explosion landed squarely at the center of the gathering. Another missile followed moments later. Over forty men were killed instantly, according to local residents interviewed by GlobalPost.  

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Among the dead were four fighters, including a local commander affiliated with the Haqqani network, recently designated by the Obama administration as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, according to a Pakistani Intelligence official interviewed at the time of the attack. Twenty nine of those killed were local elders and tribesmen who were there to take part in the jirga proceeding.

I was born and raised in Waziristan. I know the people who live under the unique horror of the daily hum of drones and the killing they cause. In fact, I was one of them. As a journalist who has worked in this area for many years, I know the geographical and human terrain where this strike occurred and I have witnessed a vast range of reactions to these attacks by fellow Pakistanis, from tribal relatives to politicians and activists. A GlobalPost analysis of the March 17 drone attack, a so-called “signature strike” or “crowd kill” which the Obama administration has stepped up dramatically in the last three and a half years, offers a profound set of lessons on the effects of indiscriminate predatory drone strikes in this region. 

“It’s not only the relatives of those killed who have suffered, but the whole village. Every family lost someone to the strike. We lost our elders, our entire leadership”, said Noor Khan, 29, whose father, Daud, by many accounts a beloved and respected tribal leader, was killed.

Daud Khan’s death left behind a tribe of thousands, a large immediate family of children and grandchildren and the bitter inheritance of animosity toward America that is simmering in towns and villages like this across Waziristan precisely because of indiscriminate drone strikes like this one.

“Nearly two hundred people attended the funeral and they all were very angry.” added Anwar Khan, the relative of another victim of the drone attack.

Over the three and a half years of Barack Obama’s presidency, “signature strikes,” which are CIA-authorized attacks based on general targeting of groups rather than specific targeting of individuals, have dramatically increased. At Obama’s direction, the CIA has carried out 292 such secret attacks in the first three and a half years of his presidency. That is five times more than the Bush administration carried out, according to a newly published report on drone attacks by the Stanford Law School and NYU School of Law.

There is little if any transparency on the decision making process that goes into these, and many international human rights law experts believe they result in extrajudicial murder. These “signature strikes,” also sometimes more bluntly referred to in national security circles as “crowd kills,” are often where the US is making its worst mistakes in killing civilians, military analysts and human rights workers say.

The hallmark of the Obama administration’s use of drones has been an expansion of these “signature strikes.” What distinguishes these strikes from other drone attacks is that they are not based on specific evidence of known individuals or enemy combatants but rather on general information about “military-age males.” Such strikes were initiated under Bush in 2008, according to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Micah Zenko, who has researched them extensively.

“In an effort to reduce the Pakistani safe haven that was being used to attack US soldiers in Afghanistan, President Bush authorized drone strikes against anonymous militants whose behavior – based on signals intelligence, human agents and drone surveillance – resembles that of Taliban or Al Qaeda leaders,” said Zenko.

Noor Khan.
(Haji Mutaba/Courtesy)

“Signature strikes are problematic because they are not carefully vetted by the inter-agency process and they are often less precise and less discriminate,” Zenko told GlobalPost, adding that there also appears to be a pattern in the CIA tactic which includes staggered, follow-on strikes to kill rescuers of initial victims known as “double taps.”

The United States has never issued any statement of apology for the March 17 attack, not has any US government official ever acknowledged nor defended the practice of these “signature strikes” or “crowd kills.”  In fact, the mere mention of signature strikes has left US officials stumbling and evasive. 

In April, John Brennan, Obama’s National Security Advisor, was asked at the Woodrow Wilson Center, “If you could address the issue of signature strikes, which I guess aren’t necessarily targeted against specific individuals?”

Brennan replied: “You make reference to signature strikes that are frequently reported in the press. I was speaking here specifically about targeted strikes against individuals who are involved.”

The US government declines to make any recognition of nor comment on such strikes, but as journalist and author Daniel Klaidman uncovered in his new book, Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency, Obama was uncomfortable enough with the term “crowd kill” that he changed the name, if not the tactic. These attacks, as Klaidman revealed, are now referred to as “TADS,” an acronym for a Terrorist Attack Disruption Strike. And these tactics are being employed not just in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but in Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere, according to Klaidman’s research.

No matter what name it goes by, the attack in North Waziristan has hurt US efforts in Pakistan, according to Pakistani as well as Western diplomats and security analysts. The March 17 strike was a dramatic stain on the record of US drone policy. When mistakes like this are made, they exact a great toll on US interests as well as Pakistani lives. In addition to killing tens of civilians, the strike alienated and enraged not only victims’ relatives like Noor Khan, but the broader group of tribal citizens in the region, some of whom actually had a previously favorable view of discriminate drone strikes as an effective means of eliminating their Taliban enemies while sparing civilian lives.

The United States simply cannot afford any more faulty strikes like this, which are more impactful than the effective strikes. The strike gave further ammunition to the forces which are exploiting the issue for political reasons, and also provided Pakistan with political capital to use as a leverage in its tense relationship with the US. Even 18 months after this attack, litigation remains, victims’ relatives and locals are still angry and political groups (and terrorist organizations) seize upon that energy to keep up the drum beat against America. 

“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction and such attacks will result in the increase of hatred for the US,” said Noor Khan. “We have gone to the court to know who has allowed these attacks and on what legal ground,” Khan said about the petition which he, along with other relatives of the victims, have filed in a Pakistani court.

Just last week a march in Waziristan was led by the once-great Pakistani cricket star turned maverick populist political leader, Imran Khan. He gathered thousands of demonstrators, hailing from cities and villages across Pakistan and from other countries, including several dozen activists who traveled from America, to protest the US use of weaponized drones and the way in which their proliferation worldwide is against international law and basic human rights. Their march was thwarted by authorities, but the attempt was covered in the international media and by many accounts succeeded in the organizers’ goals of drawing attention to their view that the US policy of drone strikes are a violation of international law.

The March 17 attack came at a particularly sensitive time in Pakistan-US relations, on the heels of the release of a CIA contractor named Raymond Davis, who was involved in the killing of two Pakistanis in the city of Lahore and was later released when the families of those he killed had accepted ‘blood money.’ 
The Pakistani military, under public pressure over the release, came up with an unusual harshly worded condemnation of the attack. The chief of the Pakistan Army, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani termed the attack as the violation of human rights and “unjustified and intolerable under any circumstances.” 

It was announced that those targeted in the attack would be compensated, but locals, including Noor Khan, knew that this is was a public gimmick and thus refused to take the compensation offered by the government.

“For us the people killed were more important than the money offered as compensation," said Noor Khan. Similarly, his brother Anwar Khan said, “We don’t sell our dead.” 

In background briefings at the time of the March 17, 2011 attack, American officials strongly refuted the claims of civilian killings and were of the view that those killed were fighters who were planning an attack against American and NATO forces in Afghanistan. And at that time a Pakistani intelligence official told me that 13 of the dead were Pakistani Taliban fighters, including at least one commander. Since then there has been persistent scrutiny and a rising crescendo of criticism. US officials have since acknowledged that civilians were killed and that mistakes were  made. The Associated Press carried out a thorough investigation of the attacks and found that four of the victims were Taliban leaders. In the end, the attack has come to embody the weaknesses of the “signature strikes.”

But not all of the drone strikes resemble the story of the March 17 strike.

Another drone attack which took place almost exactly a year later — on March 13, 2012 in the Sra Khowra area of South Waziristan close to the Afghanistan border —has had a very different impact and it is worth comparing the two.

The strike killed Amir Hamza and Shams Ullah, both high-ranking Taliban commanders who were commanders with the Haqqani-affiliated Molvi Nazir Group. The Taliban acknowledged and vowed to avenge their deaths in a public statement distributed in pamphlets around the region.

"Infidels are subjecting the Muslim world to atrocities — mosques and madrassas are being targeted; even children of four to six months of age are not spared," they claimed. The statement painted a picture that simply did not occur, and reveals some of the effort on the part of the Taliban to exaggerate the details of these strikes to engender more anger and outrage. In this strike, neither a mosque had been targeted nor were women and children killed. In fact, by numerous accounts of eyewitnesses and families as well as security officials who GlobalPost has interviewed, no civilians were killed. This was a far more precise strike than the March 2011 attack.  

According to one informed, local observer in Wana, the capital of South Waziristan, many drone strikes have been very effective in targeting the leadership of Taliban in the area. The pamphlet also included the name of another top commander, Haleemullah, involved in numerous attacks against Western and Afghan forces across the border.

Muhammad Alam was alerted to the news of the March 11, 2012 drone strike in his hometown. Alam, a shopkeeper, had just opened his shop and was waiting for his first customer but instead found his brother with the aforementioned pamphlet from the Taliban announcing the death of three of their top commanders.
“All three were very important and had large groups who used to go across the border and attack the American forces”, said Alam, who had heard about their deaths before but saw the Taliban pamphlet as confirmation that they were indeed Taliban leaders.

“The drones have really weakened the Taliban and will take some time for them to replace experienced commanders like those killed,” Alam added.

The March 2011 and March 2012 strikes are polarized examples of the complex reality of drone attacks. The approximately 350 drone strikes that have taken place in Pakistan since 2008 range in their circumstances and outcomes. These two strikes fall on opposite ends of the drone strike spectrum (in terms of their effects), which ranges from precise targeted killings to broader based and less discriminate signature strikes. 

In the case of Waziristan, signature drone strikes are especially complicated. It is too often difficult to separate the combatants from the civilians as happened in the case of March 17. Waziristan has been under the control of the Pakistani Taliban for several years now and the local population, in the absence of effective civil administration, rely on the Taliban from duties ranging from policing to dispensing justice. The jirga strike is an example: the two tribes initially approached the Taliban to resolve the mining dispute, who then deferred to the tribal elders to hold a meeting. 

The tribal administration structure, which has been in place since the 19th century British colonial rule, has now almost collapsed and the Taliban have replaced the traditional leadership in the area. Although their exercises of power include civil quasi-governance, their enforcement is frequently marked by violent volatility and tyranny. Once recently local Taliban leaders even went to the main Press Club in Miran Shah and locked down the building as they were unhappy with a published article. 

The very fact that the March 2011 jirga was being attended by the Taliban, the local elders and government employees would seem to illustrate their power. The Taliban had sanctioned and convened the jirga and the locals knew that the Taliban would make sure that its decision was obeyed by both the parties.

A signature strike such as this serves to confirm the intimacy in governing that exists between the tribal populations and the Taliban who cohabit Waziristan.
In such an instance, even minor US intelligence mistakes can have catastrophic consequences in the form of deaths of people perceived as civilians and civilian leaders which serves to enrage the tribal population, perhaps tilting the balance of the “lesser of two evils,” from their delicate perspective, in favor of the Taliban and against the United States.   

In other words, drone strikes are not 'one size fits all.' The US has a choice as to what circumstances warrant a strike as a matter of policy — essentially a choice between precise strikes and ‘signature strikes,’ and clearly it puts its own foreign policy goals at grave risk in using the ‘signature strikes.’

As the CIA continues to rely on drones in what they deem an armed conflict, it will have a chance to kill highly valued targets as it did in the South Waziristan strike. But to do so it will need to step up its intelligence efforts and embrace the complexity of such operations and weigh the killing of civilians very carefully. The broader attacks like the one in North Waziristan are dangerously crude in their targeting and by killing so many civilians they run the risk of alienating the US even further from Pakistan . The US by not acknowledging the signature strikes due to legal reasons have already lost the narrative to the anti-drone groups of politicians and activists in the US and in Pakistan.

”The fear is that such attacks (like the March 2011 strike in North Waziristan) will bring the left in Europe and the US to join hands with the right in Pakistan resulting in the further radicalization of the Pakistani society,” observed Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations.

American and Pakistani security officials confirm that the drone attacks have been effective in Pakistan. But the risks associated with error and the deaths of civilians can serve to derail the wider strategy. These indiscriminate attacks too often serve to enrage the general population and to inspire the enemy in a region where the United States can not afford any more enemies.

Pir Zubair Shah is the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). He joins CFR from the New York Times. He was a reporter in Pakistan, working in the Waziristan tribal area along the border with Afghanistan. During his fellowship at CFR, Mr. Shah will be working on his book, telling the story of Pakistan thorough his own journey from a tribal boy to a New York Times reporter. He shared the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for his work at the New York Times and was a 2012 Nieman Fellow.

(GlobalPost correspondent Ladan Cher and Executive Editor Charles M. Sennott contributed to the reporting and writing of this story.)