They kill without warning, are comparatively cheap, risk no American lives, and produce triumphant headlines. Over the last three years, drone strikes have quietly become the Obama administration’s weapon of choice against terrorists.
Since taking office, President Barack Obama has unleashed five times as many drone strikes as George W. Bush authorized in his second term in the White House. He has transformed drone attacks from a rarely used tactic that killed dozens each year to a twice-weekly onslaught that killed more than 1,000 people in Pakistan in 2010. Last year, American drone strikes spread to Somalia and Libya as well.
In the wake of the troubled, trillion-dollar American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, drone strikes are a talisman in Washington. To cash-strapped officials, drones eliminate the United States’ enemies at little human, political, or financial cost.
The sweeping use of drone strikes in Pakistan, though, has created unprecedented anti-American sentiment in that country. While U.S. intelligence officials claim that only a handful of civilians have died in drone attacks, the vast majority of Pakistanis believe thousands have perished. Last year, the Pakistani government apparently blocked American drone strikes after tensions escalated between the two governments.
After a CIA contractor killed two Pakistanis in January and American commandos killed Osama bin Laden in March, there were no drone strikes there for weeks at a time. In November, drone strikes stopped again after an American airstrike killed 26 Pakistani soldiers near the border with Afghanistan. As of late December, there had been no strikes in Pakistan for six weeks, the longest pause since 2008, and a glaring example of the limitations of drone warfare.
My perspective on drones is an unusual one. In November 2008, the Afghan Taliban kidnapped two Afghan colleagues and me outside Kabul and ferried us to the tribal areas of Pakistan. For the next seven months, we were held captive in North and South Waziristan, the focus of the vast majority of American drone strikes during that period. In June 2009, we escaped. Several months later, I wrote about the experience in a series of articles for the New York Times, my employer at the time.
Throughout our captivity, American drones were a frequent presence in the skies above North and South Waziristan. Unmanned, propeller-driven aircraft, they sounded like a small plane - a Piper Cub or Cessna-circling overhead. Dark specks in a blue sky, they could be spotted and tracked with the naked eye. Our guards studied their flight patterns for indications of when they might strike. When two drones appeared overhead they thought an attack was imminent. Sometimes it was, sometimes it was not.
The drones were terrifying. From the ground, it is impossible to determine who or what they are tracking as they circle overhead. The buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death. Drones fire missiles that travel faster than the speed of sound. A drone’s victim never hears the missile that kills him.
Our Afghan and Pakistani Taliban guards despised the drones and disparaged them as a cowardly way for America to wage war. The 2009 surge in drone attacks in Pakistan prompted our guards to hate Obama even more than they hated Bush.
The most difficult day of our captivity was March 25, 2009. Late that afternoon, a drone attack occurred just outside our house in Makeen, South Waziristan. Missiles fired by an American drone had struck dozens of yards away. After chunks of mud and bits of shrapnel landed in our courtyard. Our guards hustled me down a hillside and ordered me to get inside a station wagon. They told me to lie down, place a scarf over my face, and say nothing. We all knew that if local militants enraged by the attack learned an American prisoner was in the area, I would be killed. As I lay in the car, I heard militants shout with fury as they collected their dead. A woman wailed somewhere in the distance. I silently recited the Lord’s Prayer.
After 15 minutes, the guards took me back to our house and explained what had happened. Missiles from American drones had struck two cars, they said, killing seven Arab militants and local Taliban fighters. Later, I learned that one of our guards suggested I be taken to the site of the attack and ritually beheaded. The chief guard overruled him.
The strikes fueled a vicious paranoia among the Taliban. For months, our guards told us of civilians being rounded up, accused of working as American spies and hung in local markets. Immediately after that attack in South Waziristan, a feverish hunt began for a local spy who the Taliban were convinced had somehow secretly guided the Americans to the two cars.
Several days after the strike, our guards told us foreign militants had arrested a local man and accused him of guiding the drones. After the jihadists disemboweled the villager and chopped off his leg, he “confessed” to being an American spy, they said. Then the militants decapitated the man and hung his corpse in the local bazaar as a warning.
My time in captivity filled me with enormous sympathy for the Pakistani civilians trapped between the deranged Taliban and ruthless American technology. They inhabit a hell on earth in the tribal areas. Both sides abuse them. I am convinced Taliban claims that only civilians die in drone strikes are false, as are American claims that only militants do. Drone strikes are not a silver bullet against militancy, nor are they a wanton practice that fells only civilians. They weaken militant groups without eliminating them.
During my time in the tribal areas, it was clear that drone strikes disrupted militant operations. Taliban commanders frequently changed vehicles and moved with few bodyguards to mask their identities. Afghan, Pakistani, and foreign Taliban avoided gathering in large numbers. The training of suicide bombers and roadside bomb makers was carried out in small groups to avoid detection.
Altogether, 22 drone strikes killed at least 76 militants and 41 civilians in North and South Waziristan during our seven months in captivity, according to news reports. Some strikes clearly succeeded. Our guards reacted with fury, for example, when Uzbek bomb makers they knew were killed in a drone strike. They also showed my Afghan colleagues the graves of children they said died in strikes.
It is impossible for journalists, human rights groups, or outside investigators to definitively determine the ratio of civilians to militants killed by American drones. The United States refuses to release details or publicly acknowledge the attacks, which they insist are classified. Militants, meanwhile, refuse to allow unfettered access to the area.
The strikes kill senior leaders and weaken Al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, and the Afghan Taliban, but militants use exaggerated reports of civilian deaths to recruit volunteers and stoke anti-Americanism. I believe the drones create a stalemate between militant groups and U.S. intelligence agencies.
While drones are seen as a triumph of American technology in the United States, they provoke intense public anger in Pakistan. Exaggerated Taliban claims of civilian deaths are widely believed by the Pakistanis, who see the strikes as a flagrant violation of the United States’ purported support for human rights. Analysts believe that killing a senior militant in a drone strike is a tactical victory but a loss over the long term because it weakens public support for an American-backed crackdown on militancy in Pakistan, which many analysts think is essential.
“In the short term, it puts (the militants) on the back foot,” a former United Nations official in the region who spoke on condition of anonymity told me. “In the overall community, it’s devastating.”
Worsening the problem, the U.S. has allowed the Pakistani military to falsely claim that it has no control over the drone strikes. American drones operate out of Pakistani air force bases with the permission of Pakistani forces, yet the Pakistani public is told that a foreign power is carrying out unilateral attacks inside their country and violating their sovereignty.
Pakistan is not the only country experiencing drone attacks. Since 2001, the United States has carried out drone strikes in five other countries - Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Libya and Somalia. In Libya, the American military carried out 146 drone strikes during NATO’s seven-month bombing campaign against the Gaddafi regime. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the CIA and the American military do not disclose the number of attacks, but a senior American military official put the number at “dozens” since 2001.
The most alarming pattern has emerged in Yemen and Somalia. The exact number of strikes in both countries is unknown. Local media in Yemen report strikes as often as once a week, but American officials decline to confirm that.
On September 30, 2011, a drone flying over Yemen set a new precedent. Without a trial or any public court proceeding, the United States government killed two American citizens, Anwar Al Awlaki and Samir Khan. The target of the attack was Awlaki, a New Mexico-born Yemeni-American whose charismatic preaching inspired terrorist attacks around the world, including the 2009 killing of 13 soldiers in Fort Hood, Texas. Civil liberties groups argued that a dangerous new threshold had been crossed. For the first time in American history, the United States had executed two of its citizens without trial.
The Obama Administration cited a secret Justice Department memorandum as justification for the attack. Its authors contended that Awlaki’s killing was legal due to his role in attacks on the United States and his presence in an area where American forces could not easily capture him. The administration declined to publicly release the full document.
Many experts insist a new approach to drones is desperately needed. Strikes should continue, they say, but in a vastly different manner. Among the changes they suggest: The U.S. must end its absurd practice of refusing to publicly acknowledge attacks. Many analysts also believe Washington should accede to longstanding demands from the Pakistani, Afghan, and other local governments for more control over the use of drones. Their reasoning is simple: Along with the United States, local officials will then bear the burden of building local public support for drone strikes.
“They have asked for sharing the responsibility, but also means sharing the technology,” Vali Nasr, a Tufts University professor and former senior Obama Administration adviser on Pakistan, told me. “We have resisted that, but the benefit is that you give the local government ownership.”
For all their shortcomings, drones do present a tempting though far from perfect martial option. Drones can reach jihadists in remote mountains and deserts inaccessible to American and local troops. They have taken out top militants, such as the Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud, who was responsible for the killing of thousands of Pakistani civilians in suicide bombings. And they have slowed the training of suicide bombers and roadside bomb makers, most of whose victims are innocent Afghan and Pakistani bystanders, not American troops.
But drones alone are not the answer. Over the long term, it will be moderate Muslims who defeat militancy, not technology.