Are drone attacks really worth it?

When a child sees his family killed for no reason, his life changes. He has nothing to lose anymore. He fights back. Drone attacks won’t solve anything. Dialogue will.

Nauman Khalid October 07, 2010
On September 20, 2001, while addressing a joint session of the US Congress, then US president George W. Bush said:
“Every nation in every region now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

These words really changed our world, as our rulers sided with them instead of our own people.

An inroad into our airspace

In less than a month on October 7 2001, the US military started its operation Enduring Freedom to eliminate safe havens of al-Qaeda and in search of Osama Bin Laden. Cities and towns all over Afghanistan were pounded through air and on November 12, Kabul fell.

In 2002 the US, UK and ISAF forces started to consolidate their relevant areas of operations. Their main responsibilities were to support US backed Karzai government, to rehabilitate infrastructure and to consolidate their positions in Afghanistan. Taliban, somehow blended into the general population.

During 2003-2005, Taliban resurged. They started to recruit new blood in their “Jihad” campaign against US and US-lead Afghan armed forces, in Pashtun areas. Small groups of fighters started attacking outposts, convoys, police patrols and high value targets. US and Afghan governments started blaming ISI and Pakistan for this renewed Taliban offensive. They claimed that ISI and tribes in the Waziristan region of Pakistan are training Taliban and providing assistance to them, which Pakistan has always denied. Reports and videos started to leak into media about Osama Bin Ladin’s and senior Al-Qaeeda’s leadership presence in North Waziristan region of Pakistan.

Drone attacks in Pakistan: futile in the war on terror?

The US started patrolling its UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones. Locals call them 'machay’ (meaning red bees) into the region. Predator and Reaper are the two known types of drones operating in the region. They fly at high altitudes and have high endurance and they can fly for thirty six to forty eight hours without refueling.

On June 18, 2004, a Predator fired Hellfire missiles in Wana, Waziristan and NekMohammad Wazir. A new form of warfare emerged. Since then, there have been 166 reported drone attacks in Pakistan, killing 1,749 people, mostly innocent civilians.

I just can’t understand the rationale behind a military operation which has a success ratio of just 3.03 per cent. I don’t think any reasonable person can. Since the new government has taken power in Pakistan, the success ratio of these attacks has dropped drastically, not that it was any good earlier. It seems that a free hand has been given to the CIA, or they have assumed a free hand themselves. Initially, our government used to raise a meagre voice against these drone attacks but now even that diplomatic ritual has become non-existent.

So what gives the US government any legal right to launch drone attacks in Pakistan? Did Pakistan attack the US? No. We have no such desire, let alone the capability. Is Pakistan a failed state which frightens the US? Despite all the talks, I believe not. We have central and provincial governments, an independent judiciary and a lot more of a free media than the US. We have issues like any other country in the world but we are coping with them and we’ll prevail. Has Pakistan had ever asked US to help our internal affairs through the drone attacks No. The Pakistan National Assembly actually passed a resolution to ask US to stop these drone attacks. Nothing could be more official and direct than that.

Year Attacks Key or Mid-Level Al-Qaeeda Operatives Killed Total Killed Success Ratio
2004 1 1 5 20.00%
2005 2 1 7 14.28%
2006 2 2 23 8.70%
2007 4 - 74 0%
2008 33 19 296 6.42%
2009 53 14 709 1.97%
2010 71 16 635 2.52%
Total 166 53 1749 3.03%

Source: (Data up to September 21, 2010)

Mixed messages and unsatisfactory results

The problem is that our National Assembly condemns these attacks but on the other hand, our government provides bases to CIA operatives for operating these drones from inside Pakistani territory. No borders crossed, no trespassing. These drones fly from Pakistani bases and when they take off, as they gain altitude of a few feet, control is transferred to a joystick pilot sitting across the world in Nevada, who then operates these drones for hours in shifts. Sometimes, they attack at their own discretion and sometimes after receiving intelligence from CIA operatives and spies on the ground. There used to be stricter control on when to attack and where to attack earlier on, but since new governments have assumed responsibility in the US and Pakistan, those controls have been relaxed; hence, more attacks and more innocent deaths.

The question is whether this new type of warfare is helping. No, not at all, I believe. When an operative fires a hell-fire missile at a compound or a village house seeking to defeat jihadis or to kill someone from Al-Qaeda, the first thing he does is alienate those villagers and tribesmen. Most of the time, their intelligence is wrong and civilians are killed.  I think this is the main reason, besides any other reason, that this area has become the most fertile region for recruiting new Al-Qaeda members. As we know, the average age of a suicide bomber is between fourteen and eighteen years. Some would say that it is because they are easier to brainwash, but let’s not forget – when a child that age sees his family killed for no reason, his life changes. He has nothing to lose anymore. He fights back.

In my opinion, this policy of killing Al-Qaeda leaders by drone attacks will probably never work in the long term. This may be a cheaper alternative, but it has a very low success rate. Crumbling the extremists’ leadership and operations might seem like a short-term success, but in the long term it, will hurt all the stakeholders. New, smaller, rogue groups will evolve, over which we probably won’t have any control over and they will be harder to bring to the discussion table at a later stage.

Drone attacks won’t solve any problems. Dialogue will.

This piece was originally published here
Nauman Khalid A chartered accountant and certified information system auditor living in Lahore. He also writes for and administers a blog at
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


Syed Anas Baqi | 13 years ago | Reply @Concerened Omega. $20,000 for a single hell-fire missile, agreed. But do you even know the annual military spending of US? Its $700 billions. So $20,000 is like a glass of water from an ocean. They are not funding the war with their garage sales. They have got money and financial resources to power their big war machine. Its US we are talking about, Not Bangladesh. What kind of preposterous and absurd theory you have to solve the situation in FATA. You ask for two months? USA has been give 9 years in Afghanistan. are the taliban gone from there? Now don't shame yourself by saying that its because the taliban are residing in North Waziristan. Why dont the US attacks the taliban when they cross the border, attack the US forces and cross back.... US forces only scream their lungs out when they are in Pakistani territory and then provide a lame excuse for drone attacks. Its like USA's Vietnam all over again and we are very happy to play the role of Cambodia. And You talk about Conspiracy Theories. So according to you, the presence of 19 Indian Consulates along the Af-Pak Border is a Conspiracy Theory. The BLA, The BLF and the Baloch terrorist armies are hoax and India is just there in Afghanistan to play Polo. Thats what you say? Then why don't you also believe that Osama Bin Ladin and Al-Qaeda is a Conspiracy Theory to keep the World at War? Where is the biggest hoax of 21st Century, Mr. Bin Ladin? Where is Al-Zawahri? Maybe they are in Pentagon? But then again, You will call me a conspiracy theorist. Didnt you have the guts to call Mr.Bush a Conspiracy Theorist when he was blaming Iraq of WMDs. No, you don't have the guts to criticize the Superpower. Because you are a gutless goose. Adiós.
Fatima | 13 years ago | Reply Agreed. It also challenges our sovereignty.A staunch foreign policy is the need of time.
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