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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.


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.)