Connect to share and comment

The global market for drones is booming. But what does the coming arms race mean for US national security interests — and the future of warfare? GlobalPost correspondents report from critical locations around the world, from Israel to Iran to Yemen to Brazil — where unmanned aerial vehicles are radically transforming combat and surveillance.

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

American approach to deadly attacks proves overly blunt, says journalist and Waziristan native Pir Shah.

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