The Efficacy of U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan: The Long View

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“The United States is at war with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces. We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first. So this is a just war . . . a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.”

U.S. President Barack Obama
National Defense University, Fort McNair, Washington DC
May 23, 2013


Under the Obama administration, targeted killings of suspected terrorists through the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, have reached levels unprecedented in military history. Given that the majority of drone strikes are shrouded in secrecy, critical questions as to their legality and the governing policy framework remain unanswered. The complications that arise out of the conflicting national security requirements for confidentiality and the democratic needs for transparency and accountability find full expression in the case of Pakistan, where covert drone strikes have been conducted since 2004.

Covert drone strikes in Pakistan target terrorists and militants belonging to al-Qaeda and its associated groups. Proponents of the current drone policy, including members of Congress (such as Senator Dianne Feinstein) and academics (such as Daniel Byman and Christine Fair at Georgetown University), assert that the United States increasingly relies upon drones for one simple reason: they work.

According to this view, covert drone strikes present the best alternative to putting “boots on the ground” in geographic areas beyond the host state’s control and where capturing militants is difficult.[1] Even when they eliminate low- or mid-level operatives, drone strikes are believed to damage terrorist organizations by causing “the rise of lower leaders who are not as experienced as former leaders,” increasing the likelihood of mistakes and miscalculations.[2] Because drone strikes deliver on their goals, proponents argue that they should be allowed to continue, or even be expanded, for as long as necessary.[3] The continuation of drone strikes in Pakistan and the expansion of drone strikes to new regions indicate that many in the White House and the Pentagon agree with this view.

Opponents of covert drone strikes argue that the strikes are inherently counterproductive, as any benefits are dwarfed by strategic losses. The public anger and resentment that result from inadvertent civilian deaths frequently serve as recruitment tools for extremist groups. Moreover, when the government is unable to address this public sentiment, it alienates citizens from their governments and creates instability.[4] From a military standpoint, the disruption of al-Qaeda and Taliban networks may be hailed as a victory, yet it is accompanied by the possible loss of popular support in a key ally state. This is one of the reasons why opponents of covert drone warfare advocate for the United States to end these strikes.[5]

Using Pakistan as a case study, this article analyzes the ongoing debate and concludes that while there is merit to arguments on both sides, prudent policy recommendations for the governance of the United States’ covert drone program fall somewhere in between. In order to highlight how important drones have become to the notion of warfare, the first section of this article examines the advantages of drones compared to more conventional weapons in order to understand drones’ prominent place on the battlefield. The second section explores the societal and political implications of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan against the backdrop of the unique geopolitical environment in the tribal areas of Pakistan. The final section of this article presents policy recommendations aimed at enhancing U.S. counterterrorism strategy while strengthening key alliances and partnerships in this region of immense geostrategic importance.

Drones: The U.S. Weapon of Choice

The use of drones has become a central facet of U.S. counterterrorism efforts. The U.S. counterterrorism strategy’s objective, as expressed by John Brennan, current director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and former White House senior counterterrorism advisor, is to destroy and eliminate al-Qaeda from “Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Africa, and other areas.”[6] In his first three years in office, President Obama authorized 268 drone strikes, more than five times the number ordered by his predecessor, President George W. Bush.[7] In Pakistan alone, between January 2009 and July 2014, the total number of CIA covert drone strikes stood at 375.[8] Then-CIA Director Leon Panetta further affirmed U.S. reliance on drones to combat non-state actor threats, referring to drones as “the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al-Qaeda leadership.”[9]

Figure 1: Pakistan: CIA Drone Strikes during Bush and Obama Administrations


At the outset, it must be noted that there is a difference between the drone operations undertaken by the U.S. military and the covert operations conducted by the CIA. The Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a subunit of the Department of Defense, maintains executive authority over drone strikes in active theaters of war—such as Iraq and Afghanistan—but must comply with Title 10 of the U.S. Code.[10]

Conversely, the CIA derives its authority to conduct drone strikes outside of active battlefields from Title 50 covert actions.[11] Such actions are defined as “activities of the United States Government…where it is intended that the role…will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly, but does not include traditional…military activities.”[12] Given the covert nature of operations associated with this authority, the government cannot legally provide information about how the CIA conducts these missions. Nonetheless, this article specifically focuses on covert CIA drone strikes in Pakistan and offers a critique of the U.S. government’s increasing reliance on opaque tools to conduct foreign policy and national security measures.

Unmanned aerial vehicles boast numerous and varied advantages that encourage their frequent deployment. From the political and strategic perspective, U.S. armed forces personnel stay safe from harm since drones can often be remotely operated from U.S. military bases that are thousands of miles away. Additionally, because drone strikes lack the “presence of ground troops, U.S. casualties, or a serious threat thereof,” the president is not required to seek congressional approval for these operations.[13] Moreover, the effects of drone strikes are measurable in the names and numbers of militant leaders killed. A course of action that allows the president to bypass congressional approval, limit U.S. military exposure, and present a list to members of Congress and the American public of the eliminated “high value targets” makes for an attractive option.

Drones are also superior to manned aircraft in several other important respects. Like manned aircraft, drones provide near-instantaneous responsiveness. A drone-fired missile travels faster than the speed of sound, hitting a target within seconds of being fired, and can also be diverted at the last moment if non-combatants enter the blast radius.[14] Unlike manned aircraft, however, drones allow sustained surveillance of target locations: the Predator and Reaper drones can loiter above a target for more than fourteen hours, compared with a maximum of four hours for F-16 fighter jets.[15]

In addition to tactical superiority, drones are also a far more economical choice in comparison to alternatives. The purchase cost of a typical Predator is $4.5 million, whereas a manned fighter aircraft costs from $159 million to almost $2 billion. Additionally, training a drone operator costs one-tenth of the budget required for combat pilot training in manned aircraft.[16] Considering all of these factors together, a 2009 Air Force report concluded that drones present “the wisest use of tax dollars.”[17]

The rapid rise of drone technology within the U.S. military and the CIA suggests many policymakers agree. Alan Dowd, a senior fellow at the Sagamore Institute and the American Security Council Foundation, has argued that drones are the “wonder weapons of today’s wars” and are beginning to dislodge manned aircraft from their historical role in waging war.[18] For instance, in the U.S. military there has been a 1,200 percent increase in combat air patrols by drones since 2005. Similarly, the U.S. drone fleet increased from 50 to 7,500 unmanned planes between 2003 and 2013, although the vast majority of these drones are not combat vehicles.[19]

The CIA statistics on their drone fleet are classified. However, as a point of comparison, in the military drones now represent some 31 percent of the Pentagon’s air fleet, with plans to double the fleet by 2020. The U.S. Air Force also now trains more unmanned aerial systems operators than fighter and bomber pilots combined.[20] The Air Force Academy class of 2011 was the first to graduate cadets with specialties in operating drones.[21] Previously, the Air Force selected drone operators on a “non-voluntary basis,” but given the increased relevance and prestige associated with the mission, pilots now volunteer to operate them.[22] This trend is not limited to the United States: there is not a single new manned combat aircraft under research and development in any major Western aerospace company.[23]

Yet, this investment in unmanned weapons technology masks the fact that current combat drones entail significant technical, strategic, and political shortcomings. Current Predator and Reaper drones transmit real-time video images to the drone operators on a time delay. This problem, known as “latency,” has been attributed to missed targets, high civilian casualties, and the need for successive strikes at a single target.[24] This latter practice, sometimes colloquially referred to as the “double tap,” has on multiple occasions reportedly caused the death of rescuers and first responders arriving at the scene of a strike.[25]

Moreover, current versions of drones crash more frequently than any other U.S. Air Force plane in circulation. Drones crash at a rate of 9.4 crashes for every 100,000 hours flown, an extremely high statistic compared to other U.S. aircraft.[26] This gets overlooked because no harm befalls the operator, thereby bearing little political cost. Alan Dowd makes a revealing comparison between the public non-reaction to drone crashes in Djibouti, Iran, and the Seychelles under the Obama administration and the domestic political cost and the international diplomatic fall-out that other presidents faced when U.S. pilots were shot down over or near enemy territory.[27] The changing calculus of war is also compounded significantly by the fact that the cost of replacing a typical Predator drone is a fraction of a conventional aircraft’s cost.[28]

Crucially, current drones are unable to protect themselves, relying on permissive environments to operate effectively.[29] As a result, drone strikes in Pakistan occur with tacit support from the Pakistani state and military. According to news reports, not only does the Pakistani military clear the airspace for drone flights, but the Pakistani military has also fought off the Taliban to recover crashed drones.[30]

These technical limitations pave the way for further political implications. Since drone strikes rely on host government support, the United States is faced with a stark choice: confront the overwhelmingly negative public opinion on drone strikes in the host state or find mechanisms to bypass the state’s democratic institutions through secret agreements with select officials and covert operations. This latter approach has been the norm in Pakistan. Without this tacit support, the U.S. ability to conduct drone strikes would be in question.

Thus, despite their precision and technological and economic superiority, drones suffer from fundamental technical limitations and substantial political hurdles that draw into question the efficacy of drone warfare.[31] As the CIA’s embrace of drone technology demonstrates, the immediate and measurable military gains of killing enemy targets have often eclipsed the less certain long-term strategic implications. The next section aims to analyze such long-term strategic consequences of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan.

Strategic Implications of Drone Strikes

Each drone strike in Pakistan is a highly covert CIA action. Although the first attack in Pakistan took place in 2004 under President Bush, the U.S. government did not acknowledge drone strikes until January 2012.[32] The stated objective of covert drone strikes in Pakistan, in the words of CIA Director John Brennan, is to “destroy and eliminate al-Qaeda.” Yet, after nearly a decade of drone strikes in Pakistan, it remains unclear whether the attacks are yielding any substantial strategic benefits. To closely examine this question, it is imperative to first ask: are drone strikes a “surgically precise” means of killing terrorists or are they causing more civilian than militant deaths?

Deaths of unarmed Pakistani civilians by the United States’ covert drone strikes can potentially lead to huge backlash from the Pakistani public, and civilian deaths are effectively manipulated by militant organizations as a recruitment tool. This dynamic has the potential to create the opposite effect of the United States’ strategic objective of “destroying al-Qaeda” and its associated groups in Pakistan. The debate on civilian casualties is clouded by the extreme lack of access to Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the key players on both sides who are keen to preserve the shroud of mystery surrounding the number of people killed by each strike.[33]

At its heart, this debate is about definitions and numbers: who are civilians and how many civilians are killed in drone strikes? The result is a wide range of conflicting numbers of civilian casualties based on unverifiable reports. The impact of the confusion expands when considered with the socio-economic conditions of FATA, the geographic target of all U.S. strikes. For the purposes of this article, there are three relevant sets of data available: those gathered by the New America Foundation, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), and the data released by Pakistan’s Ministry of Defense in October 2013.

Table 1: Pakistan Drone Strike Data

New America Foundation (2004 – 2013)[34] The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (2004 – 2013)[35] Pakistan Ministry of Defense (2008 – 2013)[36]
Total strikes: 370
Total killed: 2,080 – 3,428
Civilians killed: 258 – 307
Militants killed: 1,623 – 2,787
Unknown killed: 199 – 334
Total strikes: 383
Total killed: 2,296 – 3,718
Civilians killed: 416 – 957[37]
Children killed: 168 – 202
Injured: 1, 089 – 1, 639
Total strikes: 317
Total killed: 2,227
Civilians killed: 67
Militants killed: 2,160
Unknown killed: 0

Of the three data sets, the one released by Pakistan’s Ministry of Defense has been roundly condemned by academics and practitioners alike.[38] According to Ben Emmerson, UN Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights While Countering Terrorism, the numbers do not even correspond to the Ministry of Interior’s released data from earlier that year, which stood at 400 civilian deaths since 2004.[39] Given that the Ministry of Defense failed to provide any clarification on this discrepancy or release any information on its data-gathering methodology or sources, the figures hold little analytic value beyond providing a useful comparison between official estimates of civilian deaths and estimates provided by independent organizations.

The divergence in numbers provides a snapshot of the variation in accounting for civilian deaths. In the absence of the possibility to verify the numbers, this divergence continues to be exploited by different groups in Pakistan in order to gain support against the United States and, in the case of militant organizations, to increase recruitment.

FATA: An “Exceptional” Place

To date, all CIA covert drone strikes in Pakistan have taken place along the Afghanistan border, in the northwestern region FATA. By all relevant socioeconomic indicators, FATA is an underdeveloped region. FATA has some of the highest poverty rates in the world, with 60 percent of the population living below the national poverty line, an annual per capita income of US$250, and an overall literacy rate of 17 percent.[40]

Pakistani courts have no jurisdiction in FATA, and laws passed by the Parliament have no effect in FATA unless ordered otherwise by the president.[41] The government’s role is limited to appointing a political agent (PA) for each agency that holds the authority to decide civil or criminal matters or refer them to a jirga, a decision-making assembly of tribal elders.[42]

Demographically, the vast majority of FATA’s inhabitants are ethnic Pashtuns of various tribes. Culturally, the Pashtun tribes of FATA have a distinct social order pegged by tribal identity and customs that find full expression in the Pashtun tribes’ adherence to Pashtunwali, literally “the way of the Pashtuns,” an unwritten ethical code and customary legal norms that permeate every aspect of the Pashtun social fabric.[43]

Before discussing some of Pashtunwali’s salient tenets, it is important to recall that, like all social codes, adherence to its customs falls somewhere on a spectrum. For example, adherence in the settled areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) will be less stringent than in the remote areas of FATA, where Pashtunwali is strictly followed as a way of life.[44]

At the heart of Pashtunwali’s rules is the dichotomy of honor and shame. The concept of badal, or revenge, is so prevalent that conflicts spurred by an insult to honor can span generations until the score is settled.[45] This dynamic was described by Shah Zaman, former Secretary FATA and a native of the region:

We have a saying in Pashto…it takes one hundred years for a feud to flower. A culture that values revenge, even if it comes after one hundred years, is perhaps the best articulation of the long-term implications of U.S. drone strikes.[46]

An equally central tenet is melmastia, or hospitality. Hospitality includes gift giving, housing, and feeding the guest, and crucially, confronting their enemies.[47] The defense of the guest comes under the concept of nanawatey, meaning to enter into the security of a house, and demands the repulsion of the guest’s adversaries.[48] It is this obligation of asylum that brought tribes into conflict with British rulers, and today brings them into conflict with Pakistan’s central government and the United States. In the nineteenth century, on numerous occasions, the British government demanded that the tribes hand over outlaws, but the tribesmen chose to resist rather than hand over their guests, considering it an act against Pashtunwali.[49] Arguably, this same pattern can now be observed in FATA as some tribesmen choose to grant asylum to their Afghan brethren, not in support of their cause, but as the fulfillment of a fundamental cultural obligation.[50]

The long-term implications for U.S. military actions that run counter to this code are immense. Recent commentaries highlighting drone warfare’s pitfalls in Pakistan argue that the strikes increase anti-American sentiments, creating a blowback effect wherein killing suspected militants leads to the radicalization of local populations. What is often absent in these commentaries is a connection between these issues and elements of tribal identity such as Pashtunwali. Only by examining each of drone warfare’s potential problems in light of tribal customs, norms, and identities can one gain a full appreciation of the potential long-term ramifications of current U.S. policy.

As noted, FATA has historically presented a unique challenge to those wishing to govern the region. The rugged, inhospitable terrain, strong distaste for outside interference, and distinctive tribal culture coalesce to create the autonomous geopolitical entity of FATA, which is by many standards a quintessential ungoverned space.[51] The combination of these elements has the potential to embroil the United States in a long-term conflict that could metastasize in unforeseen ways without a clear victory for either side. As the next section details, the implications of drone strikes must be viewed against this complicated backdrop.

The Impact of Drone Strikes in Tribal Communities

Regardless of a target’s legitimacy or a strike’s precision, drone attacks affect the very fabric of tribal society. According to a rare public opinion poll conducted in FATA by the New America Foundation and Terror Free Tomorrow in 2010, nearly nine out of every ten people in FATA oppose the U.S. military pursuing al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the region.[52] More than three-quarters of FATA residents oppose American drone strikes and only 16 percent think strikes accurately target militants; 48 percent think they largely kill civilians and another 33 percent believe that they kill both civilians and militants.[53]

While only one in ten FATA residents think suicide attacks are often or sometimes justified against the Pakistani military and police, almost six in ten believe that these attacks are justified against the U.S. military.[54] Such public opinions have immediate consequences for the United States: a 2007 UN study on suicide bombings in Afghanistan concluded that many of the perpetrators hail from Pakistan’s tribal areas. Even if not from FATA, according to the report, a majority of the suicide bombers come in contact with the region: “over 80 percent of suicide attackers pass through recruitment, training facilities, or safe houses in North or South Waziristan en route to their targets inside Afghanistan.”[55]

Almost three-quarters of people in the tribal regions said their opinion of the United States would improve if the United States increased visas and educational scholarships to America for FATA residents, withdrew American forces from Afghanistan, or brokered a comprehensive peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. A majority even said their opinions of the United States would improve a great deal. Two-thirds said that policies such as American aid for education and medical care would improve their opinions.[56] Therefore, despite the negative implications of U.S. drone strikes in FATA, a long-term negative outcome is by no means inevitable. A prudent change in U.S. policies can stem or even overturn negative sentiments on the ground.

Impact on Pakistani Society

The effects of drone strikes are not confined to attacks in the FATA region. As surveillance and drone strikes make FATA inhospitable for militants, more combatants are relocating to Pakistan’s major cities. This relocation has not hindered terrorist organizations’ capacity to launch attacks. By 2012, estimates suggest about 8,000 Pakistani Taliban fighters were in Karachi.[57]

In 2013, Karachi’s terrorist violence increased by 90 percent, and the city’s 2,700 casualties from violence set a new record.[58] Some of the highest-profile U.S. targets have also been found in Pakistan’s major cities, including Khaled Sheikh Muhammad, an alleged mastermind of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Abu Zubayda, an alleged top al-Qaeda operations planner, and, of course, Osama bin Laden himself. By providing ample opportunities for fundraising and recruiting, this militant migration has strengthened and emboldened militant groups while also spreading their influence from the fringe of the country to the very center.

In this context, the rise of anti-American sentiments in Pakistan acquires even greater importance. An oft-cited impact of drone strikes is the rise of anti-Americanism and radicalization of local populations. According to the Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Project, from 2009 to 2012, the percent of Pakistanis who viewed the United States unfavorably rose from 68 percent to a high of 80 percent in the aftermath of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. In 2013, that percentage fell to 72 percent, possibly reflecting a six-month halt on drone strikes. The view that drone strikes spur anti-Americanism and radicalization was summarized by David Kilcullen, General David Petraeus’ counterinsurgency adviser:

Every one of these dead noncombatants represents an alienated family, a new desire for revenge, and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially even as drone strikes have increased.[59]

Proponents of drone strikes argue that radicalization fears are exaggerated and that the voices of Pakistani drone strike supporters are being stifled. Daniel Byman, the director of research and a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, questions the validity of the polling data on local sentiments, arguing instead that Pakistani anger is based on ignorance regarding the drone strikes’ benefits:

In addition, many Pakistanis do not realize that the drones often target the very militants who are wreaking havoc on their country. And for most Pakistanis…the most important problems they struggle with are corruption, weak representative institutions, and poor economic growth; the drone program is only a small part of their overall anger, most of which is directed toward their own governments.[60]

To be sure, the extent of these linkages is far from clear. The fact remains that even if drone strikes do not directly lead to mass radicalization, the rising, venomous anti-American sentiment cannot be ignored. The combination of Pashtun culture and the dire socio-economic realities in the FATA region provide a potentially dangerous backdrop for U.S. drone strikes that makes the radicalization of some segments of the population likely. Ultimately, even if the radicalized individuals represent a minority, there may be significant repercussions for the United States and for Pakistan.

Policy Recommendations

Drone technology’s remarkable rise as a counterterrorism tool has been accompanied by an ongoing debate on the legality, legitimacy, and justification of America’s drone warfare. Historically such questions have always followed the advancement of new weapons technologies: the advent of crossbow technology, the operations of German U-boats in World War I, and the expansion of aerial bombardment in World War II all faced similar debates.[61] Each of these pathways for new weapons technology was preceded by legal discourse, political debate, and public campaigning. While drone technology is in the throes of this process, it has already been wholeheartedly embraced by states around the world because of its apparent technological and tactical advantages.

The U.S. drone policy as it exists today is most likely unsustainable. There is growing international and domestic opposition to drone strikes. According to a 2014 Pew Research survey, the United States is one of only three countries where a majority of the public is in favor of drone strikes.[62] Of the forty-three countries surveyed, Pakistan features at the bottom of the list (with 3 percent support). Opposition to strikes is not limited to Muslim countries; in Greece, public support for U.S. drone strikes is at 8 percent; in Germany it stands at 30 percent, in the United Kingdom at 33 percent, and in France at 27 percent.[63]

Domestically, although a majority of the U.S. public views drone strikes favorably, support is waning. Between February 2012 and May 2015, U.S. support for drone strikes against suspected terrorists fell from 83 percent to 58 percent.[64] Despite the strong support drone strikes presently enjoy in some military and policy circles, the need for reform is becoming increasingly inevitable. As summarized by Micah Zenko, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations:

The choice the United States faces is not between unfettered drone use and sacrificing freedom of action, but between drone policy reforms by design or drone policy reforms by default. Recent history demonstrates that domestic political pressure could severely limit drone strikes in ways that the CIA or JSOC have not anticipated.[65]

President Obama has provided some recognition of a need for policy reform. In his May 2013 address at the National Defense University to announce the Presidential Policy Guidance for the use of drone strikes, the president stated:

To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise in every instance. For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power, or risk abusing it.[66]

Obama also outlined a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy, consisting of targeted action against terrorists, effective partnerships, and diplomatic engagement and assistance.[67] The policy recommendations outlined in this article fall in similar categories.

  1. The United States must initiate the creation of clear and transparent normative frameworks for governing the use and proliferation of armed and unarmed drone technology. Efforts must be made to align current U.S. practices with a normative framework that balances accountability and transparency with strategic gains. It must then seek to garner international support for the frameworks as accepted norms that will govern the use of drones as they are acquired by other states.
  1. Each drone strike must only aim for “high-value targets.” This entails an immediate cessation of practices such as repeated successive strikes on the same target to compensate for the delay in video transmission or strikes when a target is on the move. Additionally, this policy advocates the termination of “signature strikes,” in which the CIA advocates for striking a target not based on positive identification of an enemy threat, but merely because the target exhibits suspicious patterns of behaviors thought to be “signatures” of terrorists (as seen from the aerial video transmitted by the drone).
  1. U.S. economic investment in Pakistan must have a primary focus on civilian development and a secondary focus on military aid. Civilian development projects must focus on energy, education, and employment. A dearth of employment opportunities was reported as the most important problem in FATA by 95 percent of respondents, closely followed by lack of schools, good roads and security, poor health care, and corrupt local officials.[68] In light of the United Nations finding that a vast number of suicide bombers come from FATA, U.S. economic investment in the region, in conjunction with international bodies such as the World Bank and with the assistance of Pakistani partners, would be a wise security measure.

There have already been significant gains in the sectors of energy and education. Since the fall of 2009, the United States has helped to add 1,000 megawatts of capacity to Pakistan’s grid. U.S. aid has also helped build and renovate over 600 schools in Pakistan and has provided 12,000 students with scholarships to attend local universities.[69] However, the FATA region remains underdeveloped. FATA-oriented development projects—including the proposed Reconstruction Opportunity Zones near FATA that would give Pakistan a preferential status in U.S. markets—hold great economic promise for the region. However, the proposal was withdrawn in 2012 after Congress failed to approve the measure.

As an alternative, the United States proposed an incentive package to establish a working group on bilateral trade and investment, under the Pakistan-U.S. Trade and Investment Facilitation Agreement (TIFA) Council.[70] While talks under TIFA are currently ongoing, economic investment in the FATA region with a view toward creating employment remains an urgent need. Thus, economic investment in and around FATA is an effective, though underutilized, tool to counter extremism, militancy, and anti-American sentiments.


In the long term, covert CIA drone strikes in Pakistan in their current iteration will lead to strategic losses for the United States. While the strikes can deliver short-term results by eliminating extremist militants, they also contribute to an exacerbation of deep-rooted societal issues that cause extremist militancy in Pakistan. Domestically, covert drone strikes run counter to U.S. democratic principles of transparency and accountability. Internationally, covert strikes on foreign soil set dangerous precedents that other states may soon be able to exploit.

The United States is in a strong position to make prudent policy shifts domestically, internationally, and in Pakistan. As the leading global power and the world’s biggest deployer of armed drones, the United States has a responsibility to correct its course and set responsible global norms on the use of armed drones.

About the Author

Faiqa Mahmood is a visiting fellow at the South Asia Program of the Stimson Center, where she is currently conducting research on nuclear discourse in Pakistan. She graduated from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy with a focus on International Security Studies and Southwest Asia and Islamic Civilization. Ms. Mahmood is also a licensed attorney at the Islamabad High Court, Pakistan and has been called to the Bar of England and Wales. Her writings have appeared in Foreign Policy's South Asia Channel, Harvard Kennedy School's Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy, Georgetown Security Studies Review, and the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, among others.

[1] Daniel Byman, “Why Drones Work: The Case for Washington’s Weapon of Choice,” Foreign Affairs 92 (2013): 32.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Byman, “Why Drones Work,” 38.

[4] David Kilcullen and Andrew McDonald Exum, “Death from Above, Outrage Down Below,” The New York Times, May 17, 2009, accessed August 31, 2014,

[5] Kilcullen and Exum, “Death from Above.”

[6] Micah Zenko, “Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies,” Council on Foreign Relations Special Report 65 (2013), 1 – 31.

[7] Sarah Leo, “A Picture of War: the CIA’s Drone Strikes in Pakistan,” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, accessed August 31, 2014,; “Drone Wars Pakistan: Analysis,” New America Foundation, accessed August 31, 2014,

[8] Ibid.

[9] Zenko, “Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies,” 8; Michael Hastings, “The Rise of the Killer Drones: How America Goes to War in Secret,” Rolling Stone, April 16, 2012, accessed August 31, 2014,; Mark Mazzetti, The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth (Penguin: 2013).

[10] Title 10 oversight lies with the House and Senate Armed Services Committees and the Executive Branch. Andru E. Wall, “Demystifying the Title 10-Title 50 Debate: Distinguishing Military Operations, Intelligence Activities, and Covert Action,” Harvard National Security Journal Vol. 3 (2011): 85,

[11] “Title 50 authority” is referred to as the CIA’s authority to conduct its intelligence operations and covert actions, without requiring strict congressional oversight or public transparency.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Singer, “Do Drones Undermine Democracy?”

[14] Zenko, “Reforming U.S. Drone Strikes,” 6; Byman, “Why Drones Work,” 34.

[15] Zenko, “Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies,” 6.

[16] Alan Dowd, “Drone Wars: Risks and Warnings,” Parameters 43:1 (2013), 9.

[17] Dowd, “Drone Wars,” 9; U.S. Air Force Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan 2009-2047, 15.

[18] Dowd, “Drone Wars,” 1.

[19] Dowd, “Drone Wars,” 1; “Flight of the drones,” The Economist, October 8, 2011; Dowd, “Drone Wars,” 1; “Predator Drones and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs),” The New York Times, October 21, 2011,

[20] Dowd, “Drone Wars,” 10; David Axe, “Pentagon looks to double its unmanned air force,”, May 31, 2011,; Spencer Ackerman and Noah Shachtman, “Almost 1 In 3 U.S. Warplanes Is a Robot,” Wired Danger Room, January 9, 2012; Peter Singer, “Do Drones Undermine Democracy?” The New York Times, January 21, 2012, accessed August 31, 2014,

[21] Dowd, “Drone Wars,” 10.

[22] Hastings, “Rise of the Killer Drones,” 4.

[23] Singer, “Do Drones Undermine Democracy?”

[24] Mazzetti, The Way of the Knife, 115-137.

[25] International Human Rights And Conflict Resolution Clinic At Stanford Law School And Global Justice Clinic At NYU School Of Law, “Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma To Civilians from U.S. Drone Practices in Pakistan,” (2012); Amnesty International, “Will I Be Next?” U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan,” (2013).

[26] Carlo Munoz, “Report: Drones top list of accident-prone aircraft in Air Force,” The Hill, June 18, 2012.

[27] Dowd, “Drone Wars,” 12.

[28] Ibid., 11.

[29] Zenko, “Reforming U.S. Drone Policies,” 6-9.

[30] Ibid., 11

[31] Dowd, “Drone Wars,” 7-16.

[32] “Obama Defends U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan,” BBC, accessed September 3, 2014,

[33] Rahimullah Yusufzai, interview with Faiqa Mahmood, Peshawar, Pakistan, January 8, 2014.

[34] “Drone Wars Pakistan: Analysis,” New America Foundation, accessed 2014, September 4,

[35] The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, “Get the Data: Drone Wars,” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, accessed September 4, 2014,

[36] Pakistan Senate Secretariat, Record of 98th Session Proceedings, October 30, 2013.

[37] TBIJ does not provide data on militants killed, possibly to avoid the “unknown vs. militant” discussion. Link to the organization’s complete datasheet:

[38] Global Research News, “Pakistan Government Cover-up of U.S. War Crimes,” Global Research, accessed September 4, 2014,; “Pakistan and US: Hand-in-Hand on Drone Deaths,” Al Jazeera, accessed September 4, 2014,

[39] “Pakistan Says Drone Strikes Killed 67 since 2008,” Al Jazeera, accessed September 4, 2014,

[40] Stanford and NYU, “Living Under Drones,” 25; United States Government Accountability Office, “Combating Terrorism: The United States Lacks Comprehensive Plan to Destroy the Terrorist Threat and Close the Safe Haven in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas,” 2008, available at

[41] Stanford and NYU, “Living Under Drones,” 23; Population Demography, Government of Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Area Secretariat, accessed September 4, 2014, http://Fata.Gov.Pk/Index.Php?Option=Com_Content&View=Article&Id=56&Itemid=92.

[42] Ibid., 1498; Sherzaman Taizi, Jirga System in Tribal Life (2007), available at; Hassan Yousufzai and Ali Gohar, Towards Understanding Pukhtoon Jirga (2005), available at

[43] Lutz Rzehak, Afghanistan Analysts Network, Doing Pashto (2011), available at; Leonard N. Bartlotti, “Negotiating Pashto: Proverbs, Islam and the Construction of Identity among Pashtuns,” Transformation: An International Journal of Holistic Mission Studies 18, no. 3 (2001), 196-197.

[44] Farid Wazir, interview with Faiqa Mahmood, Islamabad, Pakistan, January 11, 2014.

[45] Michael Ignatieff, “National and International Reconciliation,” Reconciliation in Divided Societies: Finding Common Ground (2010), 96.; Codes of Pakhtoonwali; Rahimullah Yusufzai, interview with Faiqa Mahmood, January 8, 2014; Shah Zaman Khan, interview with Faiqa Mahmood, January 1, 2014; Shehzad Akbar, interview with Faiqa Mahmood, Islamabad, Pakistan, December 27, 2013.

[46] Shah Zaman Khan, interview with Faiqa Mahmood, Peshawar, Pakistan, January 1, 2014.

[47] Kakar, Tribal Law of Pashtunwali and Women’s Legislative Authority, 4; Ahmed, Millennium and Charisma among Pathans: A Critical Essay in Social Anthropology.

[48] Codes of Pakhtoonwali; Kakar, Tribal Law of Pashtunwali and Women’s Legislative Authority, 4.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Rebecca Conway, “The Battle Against Militancy in South Waziristan,” Reuters, June 6, 2011,; “Honour Among Them,” The Economist, December 19, 2006,

[51] Nawaz and de Borchgrave, FATA—A most Dangerous Place.

[52] Peter Bergen and Patrick Doherty, “Public Opinion in Pakistan’s Tribal Regions,” New America Foundation, accessed September 5, 2014,

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Tom Koenigs, Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Afghanistan, Suicide Attacks in Afghanistan (2001 – 2007), Kabul, Afghanistan: United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), 2007.

[56] Supra note 120.

[57] Michael Kugelman and Murtaza Haider, Pakistan’s Runaway Urbanization: What Can Be Done?; Rebecca Santana, “Pakistan’s Largest City Rocked by Wave of Violence,” Associated Press, December 9, 2012.

[58] Michael Kugelman, Will Karachi Become the Next Waziristan?; Tim Craig, “Karachi Residents Live in Fear as Pakistani Taliban Gains Strengths,” Washington Post, February 14, 2014.

[59] Kilcullen and Exum, “Death from Above,” 2.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Greg Kennedy, “Drones: Legitimacy and Anti-Americanism,” Parameters 42 (2013).

[62] “Global Indicators Database: Drone Strikes,” Pew Research Global Attitudes Project, accessed September 5, 2014,

[63] Full question wording: Do you approve or disapprove of the United States conducting missile strikes from pilotless aircraft called drones to target extremists in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia?; Ibid.

[64] Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Project, June 13, 2012; Zenko, “Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies,” 23, Pew Research Center, U.S. Politics and Policy, May 28, 2015,

[65] Zenko, “Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies,” 22.

[66] President Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President at the National Defense University,” The White House, accessed September 5, 2014,

[67] Ibid.

[68] Bergen and Doherty.

[69] “Remarks at the U.S.-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue,” U.S. Department of State, (accessed September 5, 2014).

[70] Kalbe Ali, “US Withdraws ROZs Offer,”, (accessed September 5, 2014).


Edited by Elizabeth Verardo, Editor for Articles, and Alexander Defroand, Editor for Articles and Assistant Director for Social Media.


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