Death from the Skies: An Overview of the CIA’s Drone Campaign in Pakistan – Part Two

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 30

An image of the Selex Galileo Falco drone employed by Pakistan (Above) and the controversial image of Predator drones on a runway in Shamsi (Below)

For all their tactical success, American drone strikes on terrorist targets in northwest Pakistan have taken a significant toll on U.S. public relations efforts in the region. Despite their popularity amongst counterterrorism officials in the United States, polls show that 82% of Pakistanis find the drone missile strikes to be unjustified. [1] Figures given by Pakistani officials show that 687 civilians have been killed along with 14 al-Qaeda leaders in drone strikes between January 14, 2006 and April 8, 2009 (The News [Islamabad], September 20). This would mean there were over 50 civilians killed for every one al-Qaeda target. There can be no doubt that the killings, especially of innocent Pakistani women and children, have caused tremendous outrage amongst average Pakistanis who are already pre-disposed to anti-Americanism. The discontent has spread from the Pashtun tribal belt to such provinces as Punjab and Sindh, the heartland of Pakistan. This has undermined the Pakistani military’s own campaign against the Taliban by painting it as one that is driven by U.S. interests.

Fully aware of the unpopularity of the strikes, the Pakistani government has sought to distance itself from them. This has taken the form of a flow of public statements criticizing the attacks and a scolding of the U.S. ambassador on two occasions. Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said recently, "As far as drone attacks are concerned, the entire world has the same stand as Pakistan has – that drone attacks are counter-productive… If the drone attacks had been useful, then we would have supported them ourselves… Our policy is to isolate militants from the local tribes, but drone attacks unite them” (AFP, May 23).

The spokesman for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations, Major-General Athar Abbas, claims the missile strikes “hurt the campaign [against terrorism] rather than help” (Christian Science Monitor, July 8). Abdul Basit, a Pakistan foreign office spokesman, also expressed his opposition to the strikes. "As we have been saying all along, we believe such attacks are counter-productive. They involve collateral damage and they are not helpful in our efforts to win hearts and minds" (Pakistan Observer, March 19).

And it is that last concern that is most important to the Pakistanis. The fear is that collateral damage in the form of dead civilians could lead to a public relations windfall for the Taliban and al-Qaeda. This could drive Pashtun tribes that are on the fence to declare badal (revenge) against the U.S. or Pakistani governments. The resulting alienation from the deaths of a few Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders could drive tens of thousands of armed tribesmen into militancy.

These fears may not be misplaced. There have been numerous protest marches against the strikes and several retaliatory suicide bombings by the Taliban or enraged Pasthun tribesmen. Retired Pakistani General Mirza Aslam Baig even tied the 2009 bombing of Islamabad’s Marriot Hotel to American drone operations. “The CIA has been using our bases for drone attacks and the operational command of drone attacks is operating from Tarbella, near Islamabad. The Marriot Hotel was being used as an operational command headquarters by the CIA. After its destruction, the command was shifted to Tarbella" (IslamOnline, February 18).

The U.S. strikes have also driven Pakistani Taliban factions that had previously agreed to peace treaties with the Pakistani government (most notably those of Mullah Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur) to break their truces and attack Pakistani troops. Both Nazir and Bahadur have been involved in attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Bahadur’s spokesman claimed, "The Pakistani government is clearly involved in these attacks by American spy planes so we will target government interests as well as foreigners" (Inter Press Service, June 12). While Bahadur could not prove it at the time, his spokesman’s charges of collaboration between the Pakistani military and the CIA would soon be vindicated.

Collusion between the CIA and the Pakistani Government

Bahadur’s belief that the Pakistani government, for all its public statements of outrage, was somehow complicit in the strikes is not uncommon in the country. Pakistani officials dismissed such charges as “absurd” until Senator Diane Feinstein, Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, dropped a bombshell in a February 12, 2009 conference when she claimed, “As I understand it, these [drones] are flown out of a Pakistani base” (Dawn [Karachi], Febuary 14). Feinstein’s comments were widely reported in Pakistan and caused considerable uproar. Five days later, the Times of London published an article that featured satellite images obtained from Google Earth that depicted Predator drones on a runway in Shamsi, an airbase in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan (Times, February 17).

Taken together, the Times article and Feinstein’s statements exposed the Pakistani government’s double game of officially rejecting the strikes while quietly providing logistical support to the CIA. Clearly some elements in the Musharraf and Zardari governments, the military and perhaps even the Inter-Services Intelligence were supporting the drone strikes. Senator Carl Levin, Chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, told a Senate Homeland Security committee in July that Pakistan’s policy of tacit approval and public condemnation of the drone strikes was a serious impediment to the conduct of the counterterrorist campaign in Pakistan. “For them to look the other way or to give us the green light privately and then to attack us publicly leaves us, it seems to me, at a very severe disadvantage and loss with the Pakistani people” (Dawn, July 10).

As it transpires, they were not the only ones. In a strange twist that seemed to fly in the face of the common belief that the Pashtun tribes in the FATA were being driven into the hands of the Taliban by the strikes, a Pakistani think tank carried out an opinion poll in the region that seemed to prove just the opposite. In the spring of 2009 the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy interviewed hundreds of Pashtuns in FATA and found that 52% of them considered the air strikes to be accurate, 58% of them did not believe that the strikes caused anti-Americanism, 60% of them felt that the strikes damaged the militants, and 70% of them felt that the Pakistani army should also target the militants. [2]

The results of the poll, the first of its kind carried out in the region that has born the brunt of the strikes, would seem to indicate that many Pashtun tribesmen welcomed the strikes even if the rest of their countrymen did not. According to Pashtun journalist Farhat Taj:

"Hatred against the Taliban in the Pakhtun [Pashtun] areas is at an all-time high and so is disappointment, even resentment, about the Pakistani army for its failure to stop the Taliban. Many people in the Taliban-occupied territories of the NWFP and FATA told me they constantly pray for the U.S. drones to bomb the Taliban headquarters in their areas since the Pakistani army is unwilling to do so. Many people of Waziristan told me they are satisfied with the U.S. drone attacks on militants in Waziristan and they want the Americans to keep it up [until] all the militants, local Pakhtun [Pashtun], the Punjabis and the foreigners, are eliminated" (The News, January 23).
It is perhaps this sort of Pashtun sentiment, and a growing realization among all Pakistanis that the creeping Taliban movement represents a threat to their state (especially since the Taliban’s bold seizure of Swat Province which lies close the capital), that has driven the Pakistani government to openly acknowledge that the unmanned planes were being launched from Pakistan in May 2009 (ThaiIndian News, May 13). This support seems to have increased since the coming to power of the new government of Asif Zardari. The United States has, for example, been sharing images from its Predators and using them as spy platforms to help the Pakistani military arrest Taliban figures. While the United States has turned down Pakistan’s request to let them fly the Predators themselves for security reasons, it is believed that Islamabad has had input on the target selection.

As the United States and Pakistan increase their cooperation on the drone attacks, the Pakistani public seems to have grown more tolerant of them. Tellingly, there was no outcry when Baitullah Mahsud, the Pakistani Taliban leader responsible for dozens of suicide bombings that killed average Pakistanis, was killed in an August 2009 drone strike.

It is also telling that the Pakistanis themselves have begun to use drones, such as the Italian-made unarmed Selex Galileo Falco, to carry out surveillance in their campaigns against the Taliban (Jane’s Defence Weekly, May 13). The Pakistanis have also been producing their own drones, including the Burraq, Bazz, Ababeel, and Uqaab models. The latter is reportedly being upgraded with Chinese weapons to enable it to be used as a strike drone (Dawn, April 24). Pakistan, which has not been given Predators of its own by the United States, has also been working with the Turkish company Roketsan to arm their drones with laser-guided anti-tank missiles (Rupee News, April 20, 2008). Clearly for all their public remonstrations with the Bush and Obama administrations, the Pakistanis would like to have killer drones of their own to use against the militants who have wreaked havoc in their country.

Meanwhile the strikes continue at a faster pace this year than last year and, if the current tempo continues, 2009 will see 20%  more strikes than 2008. Clearly the Obama administration, which has rejected so many of the Bush administration’s tactics in the “War on Terror,” has, with Islamabad’s connivance, settled on drone strikes as its best option in the campaign against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. With the Taliban posing an ever greater threat to the Pakistani state and people, the earlier Pakistani outrage over the strikes seems to be dissipating as the Pashtuns and even those in other provinces come to see the drone strikes as a necessary evil. 


1. “Pakistani Public Turns Against Taliban, But Still Negative on U.S.,” World Public, July 1, 2009.
2. “Drone Attacks – A Survey.” The Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy, March 5, 2009,

*To View Part I of this article, please click on the LINKS section below.*