By Spencer Ackerman | Wired | Dec. 17, 2010
It may take years, but some researcher will travel to Pakistan’s tribal areas and produce a definitive study on what it’s been like to live amidst an aerial bombardment from American pilotless aircraft. When that account inevitably comes out, it’s likely to find that 2010 — and especially the final quarter of 2010 — marked a turning point in how civilians coped with a drone war that turned relentless.
Even as the Obama administration’s assessment of its war strategy nodded to the primacy of the CIA’s drone campaign, Predators underscored the point. Over the past two days, four Predators or Reapers fired their missiles at suspected militants in North Waziristan, with three of the strikes coming early today.
They represent a geographic expansion of the drone war. Today’s strikes come in Khyber, an area abutting Afghanistan’s Nangahar province, that’s been notably drone-free. It has become an area for militants fleeing military action in South Waziristan to take succor.
They also bring the drone-strike tally for this year up to 113, more than twice last year’s 53 strikes. But those figures don’t begin to tell the whole story.
According to a tally kept by the Long War Journal, 58 of those strikes have come since September: There has been a drone attack every 1.8 days since Labor Day. LWJ’s Bill Roggio says the pace of attacks between September and November (there was a brief December respite, now erased) is “unprecedented since the U.S. began the air campaign in Pakistan in 2004.” (By contrast, in 2008, there were just 34 strikes.)
Both Roggio and the New America Foundation have found that the overwhelming majority of this year’s strikes have clustered in North Waziristan: at least 99, by Roggio’s count.
That torrid pace of attacks should make it beyond debate that the drones are the long pole in the U.S.’s counterterrorism tent, even if the drone program is technically a secret. The Pakistanis haven’t sent their Army into North Waziristan to harass al-Qaeda’s haven in the mountainous, Connecticut-sized region, waving off U.S. pressure to invade.
Without a ground force to rely on, the CIA argues, the only option for fulfilling the administration’s goal of crushing al-Qaeda is a missile strapped to a surveillance aircraft. During the presidential campaign, Obama said he would pursue al-Qaeda in Pakistan unilaterally if he deemed the Pakistanis intransigent. No one expected he meant he’d do so from the skies.
Of course, the Pakistanis have been the silent partner in the strikes, allowing the drones to fly from their territory, so it’s not as if these are unilateral attacks.
But no one knows whether a backlash is just around the corner. While most Pakistanis remain ignorant of the strikes, those in the tribal areas live literally in their shadow, and register enormous discontent, approving of retaliatory attacks on U.S. forces.
Reportedly, the CIA’s top officer in Islamabad has fled Pakistan after a man from North Waziristan whose son and brother were killed in a strike filed a lawsuit against the agency.
There’s no official or universally accepted figure of how many civilians have died as a result of the strikes, but New America pegs it at around 25 percent of all fatalities. Long War Journal’s registry is more generous, claiming that 1,671 militants and 108 civilians have died in the strikes since 2006.
Then there’s the question of whether the strikes are legal. Obama administration claims that the September 2001 congressional Authorization to Use Military Force in retaliation for 9/11 provides all the legal protection necessary for the strikes. Some lawyers and law professors, by contrast, think that the drones’ remote pilots could eventually get hauled before a war-crimes tribunal.
A United Nations report urged Obama to rein in the drones, restricting them to attacks on the seniormost militants. He did the opposite.
Don’t expect him to heed that warning in 2011 either. After reading the administration’s war-progress report, The New York Times‘ David Sanger noted that background discussions with administration officials made it clear that next year “the pace will be picked up.” The technology certainly enables it: The Predator is giving way to the Reaper drone, which carries a bigger payload; while weapons manufacturers are lightening the weights of air-launched precision missiles.
Independent accounts of what it’s like to live under the shadows of the drones are still all-too-rare, especially in English. Given the amount of investment the Obama administration has in the drones, it’s unlikely that the administration would listen.
However targeted the strikes may be, the hundreds of thousands of civilians in North Waziristan and the rest of the tribal areas live with the anxiety of the missiles overhead. How long can the U.S. avoid a reckoning?
Update, 10:43 a.m.: CIA spokesman George Little e-mails reporters about the station chief’s departure: “Our station chiefs routinely encounter major risk as they work to keep America safe, and they’ve been targeted by terrorists in the past. They are courageous in the face of danger, and their security is obviously a top priority for the CIA, especially when there’s an imminent threat.” So there was a threat to the guy besides the lawsuit?
And Salon’s eagle-eyed Justin Elliott reminds me that CIVIC (Campaign of Innocent Victims in Conflict) recently compiled an extensive report into civilians in Pakistani tribal areas caught between the drones, the Pakistani army and extremist groups. A sample: “Civilian victims expressed anger at warring parties for their losses.
Despite some people’s fear of retribution for speaking out, many placed the blame squarely on the Pakistani and U.S. military. Almost all victims insisted that the Pakistani or U.S. governments, respectively, had a responsibility to make amends — meaning, an acknowledgment of the harm suffered and an offer of assistance or compensation.”
Photo: U.S. Air Force