Small Wars Journal

The Art of Restraining the Knife

Fri, 01/31/2014 - 6:56am

The Art of Restraining the Knife: Understanding the Limits of Drone Strikes in Pakistan

Michael McBride

Throughout the Global War on Terror, Pakistan has been a focal point of violent Islamist extremism and terrorism.  President Obama remarked in 2009, “Terrorist attacks in London and Bali were tied to al Qaeda and its allies in Pakistan as were attacks in North Africa and the Middle East, in Islamabad and Kabul.  If there is a major attack on an Asian, European, or African city, it, too, is likely to have ties to Al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan.”[1]  The threat extends beyond al Qaeda; 20% of the groups designated as Foreign Terrorist Organizations either reside in Pakistan or have significant ties there.  Numerous senior leaders in al Qaeda, Haqqani Network (HQN), and Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have been killed or captured in Pakistan, including Osama bin Laden himself; many are believed to reside there today.  Attacks have been launched against forces in Afghanistan, thousands of extremists seeking violent jihad, including scores of suicide bombers, have attended training, and a myriad of transnational terrorist plots have been planned and prepared all from within Pakistan’s borders.

Pakistan has proven to be a complex challenge in the United States’ efforts to dismantle al Qaeda and its like-minded affiliates.  Although Pakistan is a non-NATO major ally receiving billions of dollars annually in economic and military aid, it has been a state sponsor to groups actively fighting against Coalition Forces in Afghanistan[2] and conducting terrorist attacks around the world.[3]  The complicated relationship between the United States and Pakistan has at times been described as openly adversarial,[4] one of close collaboration,[5] and somewhere in between.[6]  However, regardless of the tumultuous nature of the relationship, Pakistan remains an invaluable partner in the Global War on Terror. 

While several leaders have been captured in urban areas such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Karachi or Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have been a key safe haven for al Qaeda, HQN, and TTP and other terrorist groups.  Largely due to geography, the FATA has throughout history been a non-permissive environment for both domestic political forces and foreign interveners.  President Obama has referred to this border region straddling Afghanistan and Pakistan as, “the most dangerous place in the world.”[7]  The treacherous mountain ranges make maintaining a military presence, be it expeditionary or permanent, arduous at best.  The resulting natural geographic isolation has over time forged a natural distrust for centralized government among the highly autonomous, tribalized local population. 

Pakistan and the United States have both conducted operations into the FATA to root out the varied militant, terrorist, and insurgent groups residing there.  Ground offensives have proven costly and of limited success as most campaigns have ended in short lived peace agreements.  As a result, the United States has turned to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly referred to as “drones” to conduct counterterrorism operations.  While drone strikes have proven to be enormously tactically successful, the United States has failed to develop and implement a comprehensive strategy that addresses the root causes of Islamic violent extremism and anti-American sentiment in Pakistan.    

The tactical successes of drone strikes are irrefutable.  Over 50 senior Taliban and al Qaeda leaders have been killed by drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004 including two “number three” men in al Qaeda, Abu Laith al-Libi and Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, two “number two men” in al Qaeda, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman and Abu Yahya al-Libi, senior HQN leader and son of patriarch Jalaluddin Haqqani, Badruddin Haqqani, and two TTP leaders, Baitullah Mehsud and Hakimullah Mehsud.[8]  The targeted killing campaign has dealt a serious blow to al Qaeda; documents recovered from the Abbottabad raid confirm that drone strikes were devastating the organization, forcing them to devote more time, energy, and resources to merely surviving rather than planning and executing attacks on the United States and its allies.  Bin Laden even went as far as to write a memo in October 2010 advising al Qaeda members to flee the tribal areas of Pakistan for remote parts of Afghanistan which were deemed safer despite the presence of over 100,000 soldiers from international forces there.[9]  Not only have drone strikes greatly contributed to the inability of al Qaeda to conduct a successful attack in the United States since 2001, but Johnson and Sarbahi also provide compelling evidence that, “drone strikes are associated with decreases in the number rand lethality of militant attacks in the areas where strikes are conducted.”[10]

Equally irrefutable is the fact that civilians have been killed and collateral damage has occurred.  However, due to the security situation in areas where drone strikes are conducted, accurate battle damage assessments are difficult to conduct and accessibility by reliable objective journalists is limited.  Further complication lies in differentiating between combatants and civilians, especially in light of so called “signature strikes.”  These factors have led to great variance in the reported number of civilian casualties.  The most commonly cited and reliable journalist sources include The New America Foundation, The Long War Journal, and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.  The New America Foundation claims that between 258 and 307 civilians have been killed, while noting that between 196 to 330 people who are categorized as “unknown” have been killed.[11]  The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that between 416 and 948 civilians have been killed and between 1,125 and 1,545 have been injured.[12]  According to the Long War Journal, 153 civilians have been killed.[13]  While the United States government has not officially released its estimates, statements indicate that the number of civilian casualties is quite a bit lower; Obama administration officials have anonymously indicated that approximately 50 non-combatants had been killed in drone strikes between 2001 and 2011.[14]  A report issued by the Pakistani government in October 2013 had similarly lower numbers stating that since 2008, only 67 out of the 2,227 killed in drone strikes were civilians.[15]  

The claim has been made by many commentators and perhaps most compellingly by the joint New York University/Stanford report, “Living under the Drones,” that drone strikes create more terrorists than they kill; a New York Times article even went as far as to claim that, “drones have replaced Guantánamo as the recruiting tool of choice for militants.”[16]  However such claims rely on anecdotal evidence and overestimate the impact of drone strikes in fueling anti-American sentiment.  While it must be acknowledged that drone strikes have undoubtedly contributed to some individuals’ radicalization, like that of Faisal Shazad, who cited the drones as a driving factor in his attempt to bomb Times Square, there is no definitive evidence to suggest that they are a prolific primary motivator driving terrorist recruitment or anti-American sentiment.[17]

Public polling data refutes this narrative quite convincingly.  The vast majority Pakistanis are either unaware and/or unaffected by the drone strikes.  The most drone strikes in any year by far were conducted in 2010. [18]  However, despite the 122 strikes conducted, according to a Pew Poll conducted in Spring 2011, when asked if they knew of the drone strikes, only half of respondents acknowledged any level of awareness.[19]  Pakistan is a country of over 193 million people.[20]  Even accepting the highest estimates of civilian casualties caused by drone strikes from the United Nations Special Rapporteur, Ben Emmerson, which he claims are over 400, if 1000 people were directly or indirectly affected through familial or social ties to each casualty, less than 1% of the entire population of Pakistan would have been directly affected by drone strikes.[21]  By comparison, the Pakistani Ministry of Interior claims that over 26,000 Pakistanis have been killed in acts of terrorism,[22] almost 6,000 of which are attributed to suicide attacks.[23]   However, despite the much higher incidence of civilian casualties by militants, these attacks have not attracted the same amount of negative media coverage, public outrage, and denouncement by politicians. 

It should also be noted that while terrorist attacks occur in every province of Pakistan, no drone strike has ever occurred outside of two provinces, Khyber Pahktunkhwa and the FATA where only 16% of the population resides.  In 2010, 122 drone strikes, as aforementioned the most of any year, occurred in Pakistan.  According to public polling, 68% of Pakistanis had an “unfavorable view” of the United States.  In 2007, during which only 4 drone strikes were conducted, 68% of Pakistanis had an unfavorable view of the United States.[24]  Despite over twenty times the amount of drone strikes, anti-American sentiment remained constant.  All of this evidence points to the fact that there are underlying issues fuelling anti-American sentiment independent of drone strikes. 

Pakistan’s history is wrought with anxiety over the collapse of the state.  From its modern founding during the bloody partition of British India in 1947 to the loss of East Pakistan in 1971 to the current challenge posed by TTP, Pakistan has always struggled for survival.  From the Pakistani perspective, the greatest existential threat to Pakistan has been and will continue to be India.  Any move that is seen as either challenging the existence of Pakistan or providing support to India incurs intense animosity.  Much of the anti-American sentiment has been driven by what Pakistanis have perceived to be decades of anti-Pakistan and pro-India behavior by the United States. 

In the 1950s when Pakistan joined SEATO (South East Asian Treaty Organization) and CENTO (Central Treaty Organization), it expected a security guarantee against Indian aggression, military aid, and political support over Kashmir dispute.  During 1954 to 1960 when the United States provided substantial military and economic aid and political support to Pakistan, the two countries enjoyed harmonious relations.  However in subsequent years, time and again the United States fell far short of these expectations.  Support by the Kennedy administration to India, neutrality in the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, and the cessation of military aid during the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971 all fueled anti-American sentiment and encouraged feelings of abandonment, betrayal, and mistrust. 

The successful nuclear test by India in 1974 sparked paranoia throughout the country and made nuclear weapons development an existential top priority for Pakistan.  Perceptions of a double standard with regards to the two nuclear weapons programs coupled with rumors printed in the press of plans for the United States to sabotage Pakistani nuclear laboratories further fueled Pakistani indignation.[25]  These sentiments have only been reinforced with the passage and implementation of the Pressler Amendment as Pakistan views nuclear weapons as the only way to gain strategic parity with India given its vastly inferior economy and size in geography, population, and conventional military force. 

Furthermore, United States support of numerous military coups and decades of military rule further fuels al Qaeda assertions that the United States is the root cause of oppressive regimes in the Muslim world.  As Anatol Leiven notes, “also of great importance in creating anti-American feeling in Pakistan has been the belief that Washington has supported authoritarian governments in Pakistan.”[26]  While numerous other incidents have caused flare ups in Pakistani outrage in recent years, including the murder of two Pakistanis by CIA contractor Raymond Davis, the violation of territorial integrity during the Osama bin Laden raid, and the NATO strikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November of 2011 in addition to the drone strikes, these are not the root cause of anti-American sentiment but rather are incidents that support the perception among Pakistanis that America is not committed to the preservation of the Pakistani state.

While in the interim the United States must continue to rely on drone strikes to eliminate senior terrorist leaders who present an imminent threat, they are ultimately a futile tactic if they do not fit into a more comprehensive strategy.  To defeat al Qaeda and affiliated groups in Pakistan, the United States needs to address the root causes of anti-American sentiment to counter radicalization and violent extremism that is invigorating international terrorism and instability.  The United States must demonstrate an enduring commitment to Pakistan by providing aid to strengthen democratic governance and stability, investing in economic development, and focusing diplomatic efforts on mediating conflict between Pakistan and India.

End Notes

[1] Barack Obama, "Remarks by the President on a New Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, “(speech, Washington, DC, March 27, 2009).

[2] This was stated perhaps most bluntly by then Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen when he testified in front of Congress on September 23, 2011 that, “The Haqqani network, for one, acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan's intelligence.”

[3] Christine Fair, “Lashkar-e-Taiba beyond Bin Laden: Enduring Challenges for the Region and the International Community,” testimony, May 24, 2011, before the U.S. Senate, Foreign Relations Committee.  Accessed November 5, 2013.

[4] In an op-ed published on November 1, 2011 in The New York Times, Anitol Leiven states, “If Washington wishes to improve relations with Pakistan, it needs to stop regarding Pakistan as an ally, and to start regarding it as an enemy.”

[5] Office of the White House Press Secretary, “Joint Statement Between the United States of America and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan,” White House Press Release (September 22, 2004)

[6] Michael Crowley, “America and Pakistan After Bin Laden: Still Frenemies,” Time, (May 2, 2011).  Accessed online November 5, 2011,

[7] Barack Obama, "Remarks by the President on a New Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, “(speech, Washington, DC, March 27, 2009).

[8] “Drone Wars Pakistan: Leaders Killed,” New America Foundation, November 1, 2013.  Accessed November 13, 2013.

[9] Bruce Hoffman et al., Jihad Terrorism:  A Threat Assessment, (Washington DC:  Bipartisan Policy Center, 2013), 23.

[10] Patrick Johnston and Anoop Sarbahi, “The Impact of US Drone Strikes on Terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan,” Working paper, 2013.  Accessed November 13, 2013.

[11] “Drone Wars Pakistan:  Analysis,” New America Foundation, November 1, 2013.  Accessed November 13, 2013.

[12] “Drone Strikes in Pakistan,” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, November 2, 2013.  Accessed November 13, 2013.

[13] Bill Roggio and Alexander Mayer, “Charting the data for US airstrikes in Pakistan, 2004 – 2013,” The Long War Journal, November 1, 2013.  Accessed November 13, 2013.

[14] Scott Shane, “C.I.A. Is Disputed on Civilian Toll in Drone Strikes,” New York Times, August 11, 2011.  Accessed November 13, 2013.

[15] “Questions for Oral Answers and their Replies,” Islamic Republic of Pakistan Senate, October 29, 2013.  Accessed 13 November 2013.

[16] Jo Becker and Scott Shane, “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will,” New York Times, May 29, 2012.  Accessed November 13, 2013.

[17] Scott Shifrel, Alison Gendar, and Jose Martinez, “Remorseless Times Square car bomber Faisal Shahzad warns: 'We will be attacking the U.S.” New York Daily News, June 22, 2010.  Accessed November 13, 2013.

[18] “Drone Wars Pakistan:  Analysis,” New America Foundation, November 1, 2013.  Accessed November 13, 2013.

[19] “U.S. Image in Pakistan Falls No Further Following bin Laden Killing,” Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Project, June 21, 2011, 20.

[20] “Pakistan,” The World Fact Book, Central Intelligence Agency, November 4, 2013.  Accessed November 13, 2013.

[21] U.N. General Assembly. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism. (A/68/389). September 18 2013.

[22] “Questions for Oral Answers and their Replies,” Islamic Republic of Pakistan Senate, October 29, 2013.  Accessed 13 November 2013.

[23] “Fidayeen (Suicide Squad) Attacks in Pakistan,” South Asia Terrorism Portal, November 3, 2013.  Accessed November 13, 2013.

Zeeshan-ul-hassan Usmani, “Suicide Bombing,” Pakistan Body Count, November 1, 2013.  Accessed November 13, 2013.

[24] “U.S. Image in Pakistan Falls No Further Following bin Laden Killing,” Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Project, June 21, 2011, 24.

[25] Shafqat Hussain Naghmi, “Pakistan's Public Attitude toward the United States,” The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 26, No. 3 (September 1982), 519-520.

[26] Anatol Lieven, Pakistan:  A Hard Country, (New York:  Public Affairs, 2011), 46.


About the Author(s)

Michael McBride, a graduate of the Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service, is a former Ranger and Army Infantry Officer who deployed three times to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.  He currently works as a consultant for Department of Defense.  The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone.