Private Approval, Public Condemnation: Drone Warfare’s Implications for Pakistani Sovereignty

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 7

Pakistani men protest against drone strikes (Source Getty Images)

The latest contribution to the debate over the U.S. drone campaign in Pakistan came from Ben Emmerson, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Counter Terrorism and Human Rights after three days of meetings with Pakistani officials in mid-March. When the meetings were over Emmerson’s office issued the following statement, the UN’s loudest condemnation of the CIA’s drone assassination campaign in Pakistan to date:


[Pakistan] does not consent to the use of drones by the United States on its territory and it considers this to be a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. As a matter of international law the U.S. drone campaign in Pakistan is therefore being conducted without the consent of the elected representatives of the people, or the legitimate government of the state. It involves the use of force on the territory of another State without its consent and is therefore a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. Pakistan has called on the U.S. to cease its campaign immediately. [1] 

A cursory read of the statement presents a very stark picture of a sovereign nation being invaded by U.S. drones presumably flown from Coalition-controlled Afghanistan. Pakistani officials, it can be inferred, are united in their strong opposition to these violations of their territorial sovereignty. 

However, this simple black and white image of a bullying American superpower violating international law fails to capture the complexities of America’s drone campaign in Pakistan or its relations with Islamabad. Far from being a simple case of aggression, the Pakistanis have covertly supported the drone campaign since its inception in 2004. An exploration of the true nature of U.S.-Pakistani relations in regards to the murky drone campaign reveals a grey world of Pakistan-based CIA drones, joint Pakistani-American counter terrorism operations and official (but private) Pakistani government and military support for the drone campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.   

The Drone War and Secret Pakistani Support 

The first CIA drone assassination in Pakistan was of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader Nek Muhammad in 2004. Muhammad and his followers had become the dominant force in the South Waziristan tribal agency in the previous three years. Having defeated the Pakistani army on several occasions, his followers then overturned Pakistan’s laws and strictly enforced Shari’a in what became known as “Talibanistan.” Muhammad was clearly a threat to Pakistan’s sovereignty and President Musharraf subsequently admitted that he allowed the United States to carry out drone surveillance inside Pakistan’s territory (Express Tribune [Karachi], December 3, 2010). While Musharraf later stated that he did not give the United States permission to use the drones to kill militants like Muhammad, one Pakistani daily called his retroactive disavowal of the campaign “greatly suspect” (Express Tribune [Karachi], December 23, 2010). 

In 2008 Musharraf was replaced as president by Asif Ali Zardari, whose wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, had been killed by a suspected Taliban suicide bomber. Musharraf returned to Pakistan on March 24 after five years of self-exile, apparently with a revisionist view of the drone issue more in line with the government’s official position: “No country is allowed to violate another’s sovereignty like the U.S. did in this case. Pakistan’s authority was harmed, how can I approve of such a thing?… I’m against these drone wars. It’s also an infringement on our sovereignty. If the U.S. wants to fight terrorists with drones, they should provide us with the corresponding technology so that we can carry out that fight” (Interview with Spiegel Online, March 26). 

Zardari, however, seemed to be willing to stand by the Americans and the war on the terrorists who threatened his state, even if it cost him some popularity among his own people. Zardari referred to the Taliban as a “cancerous” threat to Pakistan and told Washington he would “take the heat” if the United States launched a cross-border raid to get a high value target like Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri (Dawn [Karachi], May 26, 2011). In that year the drone war stepped up drastically from one or two strikes a year to 36 strikes. 

Subsequently, however, Zardari claimed that the drone strikes were “counter-productive and violated Pakistan’s sovereignty” (The Nation [Islamabad], March 26). This perfunctory statement was obviously meant to garner the support of Pakistanis who strongly disliked the idea of a foreign power operating with impunity on their own soil, killing what many believe are almost exclusively innocent Pakistani citizens. Many Pakistani voters wanted their leaders to publicly stand up to the American “invaders.” However, Zardari was said to have secretly told the Americans: “Kill the seniors. Collateral damage worries you Americans. It does not worry me.” [2] Zardari also told a group of Pakistani reporters in Lahore “There are no differences between Pakistan and the U.S. over any issue, including drone attacks.” (Daily Times [Lahore], January 21, 2010). He also made a plea for the United States to “give me the drones so my forces can take out the militants.” In that way, Zardari suggested, “we cannot be criticized by the media or anyone else for actions our army takes to protect our sovereignty.” (Dawn [Karachi], May 20, 2011). 

Zardari also seemed to appreciate the fact that the drone attacks were helping his country avoid military casualties they would have sustained had they directly attacked the terrorists’ lairs in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). A U.S. diplomatic cable from the Islamabad embassy related that after a drone strike in the tribal region that killed 60 militants, “Zardari reported that his military aide believed a Pakistani operation to take out this site would have resulted in the deaths of over 60 Pakistani soldiers.”  [3] 

Similarly, a spokesperson for Zadari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) declared: “There is a segment in the country who support the drone attacks and they feel that drone attacks have been helpful in eliminating many of the militants” (CNN, December 22, 2010). One Pakistani military officer told the AFP news service: “The Pakistani army supports drone strikes because they are efficient for eliminating TTP people… and give it a good reason not to start a dangerous offensive in North Waziristan” (AFP, October 10, 2011). Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States further stated: “Pakistan has never said that we do not like the elimination of terrorists through predator drones” (Dawn [Karachi], July 18, 2010). 

Wikileaks cables from 2009/2010 show that Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Gilani similarly opined in private: “I don’t care if they do it as long as they get the right people. We’ll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it.” [4] General Shah Shuja Pasha summed up his view of the Taliban/al-Qaeda when he said: “We would obviously like to fix these rogues. They are killing our own people and are certainly not the friends of this country.” [5] In addition, General Ashfaq Parvaz Kayani, chief-of-staff of the Pakistani military, secretly asked the United States for “continuous Predator coverage of the conflict area” during his forces’ campaigns against the Taliban in FATA (Express Tribune [Karachi], May 21, 2011. This request was answered in the affirmative during Pakistani operations in South Waziristan. 

In his book The Most Dangerous Place. Pakistan’s Lawless Frontier, Pakistani journalist Imtiaz Gul wrote of the disconnect between what the Pakistani leadership secretly wanted, and their public stance: 

Most Pakistanis, including members of the media and mainstream political leaders, view the attacks as a violation of their national sovereignty. But privately, even top generals support drone strikes. In a recent meeting with a handful of Pakistani journalists, a very senior general told us, “As long as they take out the guys who are [a] threat to us all, why crib about it?” Leading government officials, including Prime Minister Gilani, will agree, even if publicly they condemn the drone strikes. [6] 

A recent analysis by a former Pakistan Army brigadier, A.R. Jerral, suggested that it was worth recalling that “the former Chief of Air Staff had publicly stated that the Pakistan Air Force had the capability to intercept and destroy the drones provided the government ordered it to do so. But the government of Pakistan never tasked it for this. This too implies that there was tacit approval and consent for the drone attacks that killed innocent Pakistani nationals.” The brigadier added, however, that “if these attacks were without consent, it was an act of war and those in the government failed to protect the lives of the citizens as well as national sovereignty” (The Nation [Islamabad], March 26). 

Even as the Pakistani government summoned U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson to be publicly warned in “strong” terms that Pakistan had had enough of the drone strikes, these same Pakistani leaders secretly condoned the use of drones. Behind closed doors many of Pakistan’s leaders seemed to have believed that the targeted assassinations of terrorists were in their country’s best interests despite their public pronouncements to the contrary. 

The Secret Drone Base in Pakistan 

Senator Dianne Feinstein, Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee exposed the Pakistani government’s double game on February 12, 2009 when, when she claimed, “As I understand it, these [drones] are flown out of a Pakistani base” (Dawn [Karachi], February 14, 2009). In response, the Pakistani embassy in Washington issued an announcement which stated Feinstein’s statement was “an off the cuff remark and not a revelation as some media reports have made it out to be. There are no foreign bases in Pakistan” (Associated Press of Pakistan, February 15, 2009). Pakistani Defense Minister Ahmad Mukhtar similarly rebutted Feinstein’s incautious remark and stated, “We do have the facilities from where they can fly, but [U.S. drones] are not being flown from Pakistani territory. They are being flown from Afghanistan… I do not know on what she based all this” (Daily Times [Lahore], February 14, 2009). 

But the truth came out five days later when The Times published an article that featured satellite images obtained from Google Earth that clearly showed Predator drones on a runway in Shamsi, a base located in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan (The Times [London], February 17, 2009). 

An unnamed Pakistani security official similarly told Reuters that the drone campaign was a “joint operation” between Pakistan and the United States. This source suggested that the two countries had inaugurated a new level of understanding and that Pakistani “spotters” were used to track the terrorists. The source further said “Our working relationship is a bit different from our political relationship. It’s more productive.” He then provided for the first time details of how the Pakistanis work with the CIA in targeting terrorists for drones: “We run a network of human intelligence sources. Separately, we monitor their cell and satellite phones. Thirdly, we run joint monitoring operations with our U.S. and UK friends… al-Qaeda is our top priority.” The source also explained that “Pakistani and U.S. intelligence officers, using their own sources, hash out a joint ‘priority of targets lists’ in regular face-to-face meetings” (Reuters, January 22, 2010). 

Much of Pakistan’s Urdu and English language press used the release of the UN rapporteur’s report to vent popular frustration with civilian losses due to drone strikes and the alleged violations of Pakistani sovereignty:

  • “Pakistan should forcefully repeat its demand for an end to the drone strikes. It is to be hoped that the world community will support Pakistan. No one can argue against the need for action against the terrorists; likewise, there is absolutely no room for the killing of innocent people in today’s civilized world” (Dunya [Quetta], March 17).
  • "Whatever the United States is doing in the form of drone strikes is more savage than terrorism and there is need for a new term—’dronism’—for this. It is hoped that this term will be considered more horrific than terrorism, because these strike tear human bodies into pieces in such a way that they cannot be identified” (Aushaf [Islamabad], March 17).
  •  “The drone attacks in Pakistan are illegal because these are in violation of sovereignty of a state" (Express [Islamabad], March 17).
  • “Pakistan’s parliament has adopted resolutions against drone strikes twice, while the All Parties’ Conference has also adopted a resolution against these attacks and demanded that the UN have them stopped. It needs no clarification that no independent, sovereign country can see such trampling of its sovereignty nor give permission for it" (Jang [Rawalpindi], March 17).   
  • “Contrary to what the U.S. officials have been leaking to the media off and on, the UN official has categorically stated that drones do not have the consent of the Pakistan Government. This should leave no doubt in minds of the international public opinion that drones are nothing but an act of aggression against a sovereign country” (Pakistan Observer [Islamabad], March 17). 

Not all Pakistanis are unified in their fury at the drones for the apparent violation of their country’s sovereignty. Syed Alam Mashud, a Peshawar-based political activist from Waziristan, said “To those people sitting in the drawing rooms of Islamabad talking about the sovereignty of Pakistan, we say, “What about when [al-Qaeda] Arabs or Uzbeks occupy your village? What about sovereignty then? We compare the drones with ababeel—the swallows tasked by God in the Koran to smite an army with rocks” (Times, January 2, 2010). 



Many people in Pakistan have accepted the simple narrative that was put forth by the UN Special Rapporteur on Counter Terrorism and Human Rights. According to the narrative, that the CIA’s drones are violating Pakistan’s sovereignty, however, it does not stand up to scrutiny. There are certain elements in the Pakistani government and military who see the drone strikes as beneficial in their country’s war against Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists who have killed thousands of Pakistani citizens. While one can forgive the Pakistani government for playing a double game to protect itself from the criticism of its citizens, many of whom hold anti-American sentiments, it seems strange that a UN official was not able to provide a more nuanced statement that captures the actual nature of Pakistan’s convoluted relationship with the Americans. Axiomatic statements such as that made by the UN’s rapporteur are not useful in assessing the real impact of the drone strikes in helping the Pakistanis fight a determined Taliban/al-Qaeda enemy, which is the real threat to the country’s sovereignty.


Brian Glyn Williams is Professor of Islamic History at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and author of Predators: The CIA’s Drone War on Al Qaeda. See his interactive website at for further articles on drones.




1. “Pakistan: Statement by the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism.” Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, Available at:

2. Bob Woodward, Obama’s Wars, Simon and Schuster. New York, 2010, p.26.

3. Wikileaks: U.S. Embassy Cable 09ISLAMABAD1123, May 26, 2009.

4. Wikileaks: U.S. Embassy Cable Islamabad 002449, October 9, 2009.

5. Imtiaz Gul, The Most Dangerous Place. Pakistan’s Lawless Frontier, Viking, New York, 2009, p.206.

6. Ibid, pp. 216-17.