Graphic by Don Foley
In late May, some 16 miles down a dirt road from the main town in the isolated tribal region of North Waziristan, a missile from an unmanned Predator drone slammed into a house owned by local tribesmen and killed Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, a founding member of al-Qaeda and its top operational leader in Afghanistan. His wife and several of their children were also killed.
As the map above shows, in the first 20 months of the Obama administration, the CIA reportedly conducted at least 126 of these drone strikes in Pakistan—nearly triple the Bush administration’s total—killing at least 800 people. As many as 15 other significant commanders in al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and affiliated groups have been felled by drones under Obama, including the Pakistani Taliban’s chief, Baitullah Mehsud.
But the drone program has drawbacks. Perhaps the most worrisome is civilian casualties. According to our survey of reliable press accounts, about 30 percent of all those killed by drones since 2004 were nonmilitants, though that proportion has been decreasing recently because of better targeting, more intelligence cooperation, and the CIA’s use of smaller missiles. This year (through September), about 8 percent of those killed by drones were reportedly nonmilitants, though U.S. officials claim the rate is more like 2 percent.
The drones are immensely unpopular in Pakistan, and Pakistani politicians routinely claim that they violate national sovereignty. But many Pakistani officials are privately supportive, and much of the intelligence used to target the strikes comes from Pakistani informants. Indeed, the attacks were almost completely halted in the tribal area of South Waziristan after the Pakistani military launched an offensive there a year ago, suggesting a high degree of Pakistani-American coordination.
U.S. officials privately rave about the effectiveness of the program, though its legal justifications are murky. A recent UN report argued that the program’s secrecy could lead to a lack of accountability, and that the strikes may violate international rules of war since the CIA has never made clear how it determines its targets. Because the American and Pakistani governments seek to maintain “plausible deniability,” the White House has never officially acknowledged the program’s existence. But with limited options for hunting al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the tribal areas, the drones are, in the words of CIA Director Leon Panetta, “the only game in town.”