Drone Attacks: Pakistan’s Policy and the Tribesmen’s Perspective

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 10

A tribesman looks on as a drone strike targets an alleged militant hideout in Miranshah, Pakistan (AFP)

This paper provides an analysis of Pakistan’s policy on unmanned aerial vehicle (“drone”) attacks in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and how these attacks are perceived by students from Waziristan, the region most heavily targeted by CIA drones. The interviews with students were conducted in November/December 2009 by the author, a researcher from FATA.

Pakistan’s public position is to demand the United States stop the drone attacks in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan for two reasons: it amounts to a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty (1); and it is counter-productive given the significant degree of collateral damage, which in turn creates public sympathy for Taliban/al-Qaeda forces and hatred for the United States (2). The researcher placed the above-mentioned policy position before the students featured and asked them how they perceive said policy as well as how they would respond to it.

In-depth interviews were conducted with 15 students from different colleges and universities all over Pakistan. The duration of each interview was between one and two hours. Each one of the students attends a different college or university. Moreover, each one of them belongs to a different village in Waziristan.

Because of the sensitive nature of the inquiry, the researcher had to meet each student separately. None of the students agreed to a tape-recorded interview, but all allowed the researcher to make written notes during the interview. The students’ freedom of expression is drastically limited by the ongoing targeted killings in FATA, in which hundreds of tribal leaders, teachers, students, doctors and other people who publicly spoke against the Taliban and al-Qaeda have been assassinated, often along with their family members. [1]

All respondents were unanimous on the fact that the Taliban have completely taken over FATA, especially North and South Waziristan, with the help of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Punjabi militants (Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hizbul Mujahideen, Sipah-e-Sahaba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi etc) and foreign fighters, including al-Qaeda Arabs.  

They agree that the government of Pakistan has no writ whatsoever over the tribal agencies. They hold the militant occupation responsible for:

• Damaging their culture and traditions.

• Eliminating their entire traditional and indigenous leadership.

• Weakening the tribal society.

• Occupying their houses by force.

• Destroying their traditional and democratic institution of jirga (an assembly of elders that makes decisions based on consensus) and tribal code of Pashtunwali (“The Way of the Pashtuns”), instead replacing it with the militants’ own strict brand of Shari’a.

• Bringing destruction to homes and businesses by inciting Pakistani military operations.

The majority of the respondents (13 of 15) did not fully see the drone attacks as a violation of the sovereignty of Pakistan. Their argument is very simple: the state of Pakistan has already surrendered FATA to the militants, therefore, Pakistan has no reason to object to the drone attacks. Pakistan will have this right only if can retake the areas from the militants. Some respondents said that their homeland is used by the militants and the ISI as a launching pad for attacks on ISAF and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Each of the respondents could recall having seen the bodies of those martyred in Afghanistan in their villages. Every respondent was unhappy with what they called the malicious nexus between ISI and the militants. They are sure that the Taliban militants are still strategic assets of Pakistan’s military establishment.

Some suggested that, under the garb of military operations in Waziristan, the ISI had in fact strengthened the militants and double-crossed the United States. It was during these operations that much of the tribal leadership was eliminated by both the militants and military in order to create a power vacuum that was eventually filled by the militants. The same military operations killed hundreds of civilians and destroyed thousands of their houses without killing or injuring any important militant leaders. Wherever military operations in FATA took place, the area was since completely handed over to the militants and the state’s writ surrendered through agreements with the militants.

The students, who consider the militants and ISI/military responsible for the insecurity in FATA, increasingly find themselves hostages in the hands of both and as a result, the majority of the respondents welcomed the drone attacks for three reasons:

• The drone attacks are killing the leadership of those al-Qaeda and other militant groups who have made ordinary tribesmen and women hostages. Ordinary people are powerless against the militants and drones are seen as helpful by eliminating the militants and frustrating the designs of ISI.

• The drone attacks have resulted in substantial damage to the militants, especially the elimination of the Arab and Punjabi leadership of al-Qaeda.

• The drone attacks cause a minimum loss of innocent civilians and their property. The respondents appreciated the precision of such attacks.  

However, the respondents also pointed out that because of the drone attacks, innocent civilians were being killed by militants on a daily basis on suspicion of spying for the United States. It has become a daily routine that dead and mutilated bodies of civilians are found with a warning note that such treatment would be meted out to any person involved in spying. The resulting fear leaves most tribesmen as tightlipped spectators. For any person to remain free of militants’ suspicion, he has to condemn the drone attacks in public. A very interesting remark came from one of the respondents, who was asked why he was reticent in discussing the issue. He remarked, “If you have drones flying above you and Taliban holding a knife beneath [you], how can you speak out the truth?”

The respondents expressed a strong desire for drones as a means to attack the leadership of local Pashtun Taliban. Half of those who supported drone attacks said that people’s daily lives are affected most by the local Taliban and not the Arabs or other al-Qaeda militants who generally mind their own business, or have perhaps assigned the duty of harassment to the local Taliban. One of the respondents suggested that if only ten people amongst the leadership of the local Taliban were killed, the hierarchy of the organization would collapse like a house of cards.


1. Due to security reasons the names of the students, their villages in Waziristan and the educational institutions in which they study will not be disclosed.