Since the CIA's robotic assassination campaign began in earnest in 2008, the skies over Pakistan's wild tribal zones known as the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Agencies) which have given sanctuary to the Taliban and Al Qaeda have been filled with the buzzing sound of CIA Predator and more advanced Reaper drones hunting terrorists, militants and insurgents. The drones have killed approximately 2,600 militants and 156 innocent civilian bystanders in 356 strikes launched since the campaign began according to one estimate in the Long War Journal. This translates to a death ratio for civilians of just over 5.7 percent killed in the drone campaign and 94.3 percent terrorists. And the drones have been getting more and more accurate and able to avoid killing innocent civilians every year. By 2012 Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation, whose own study on the drones' accuracy supports that of the Long War Journal, was to write "Today, for the first time, the estimated civilian death rate is close to zero."
The drones have been merciless and precise killers that have done a tremendous job of using unprecedented discrimination based on advanced technology to hunt those who terrorize Pakistanis and Afghans and plan new 9/11s against our own country. Due to the drones, the Taliban have not been able to gather in public spaces to flaunt their authority over the breakaway FATA province of North Waziristan which they dominate (a land often known as "Talibanistan"), they have not been able to communicate using cell phones for fear that a drone will hone in on their communications and kill them, they have not been able to openly train in their camps etc. The all seeing, ever present drones have been tracking down the terrorists who are at war with Pakistan, Afghanistan and the West and killing them in their hundreds. This has made it harder for the Taliban to plan new outrages as they have had to constantly keep their head down and take evasive measures to avoid the unseen killers in the sky. As the Taliban and Al Qaeda have learned, it is difficult to wage a terror campaign on Pakistani and Afghan civilians when you are being terrorized by ubiquitous robotic killers.
But few in Pakistan seem to be aware of the drones' unprecedented accuracy and the conventional wisdom in that country is that the drones almost exclusively slaughter innocent women and children. Muhammad Ahmed of the popular Buzz Pakistan website captured this inaccurate paradigm stating (without any studies to back up his counterfactual claim) that "USA did more than 100 drone attacks in Pakistan in the past 3 years, if you read news about these drone attacks you will see that only 1% of terrorists was killed and the other 99% who died in these attacks was innocent civilians." A popular Pakistani cleric Sami Ulhaq similarly stated that the drones "kill dozens of innocent people daily." The Pakistani Observer stated with no studies to back up its claim, "The US drones or the predator planes which have been on a killing spree in Pakistan's northern belt since August 2008 and have so far killed over fourteen hundreds people, the big majority as the innocent civilians."
As such unsubstantiated, false charges were disseminated in the Pakistani media, most Pakistanis turned on the drones that indisputably killed such high value targets as Ustad e Fedayeen ("The Master of Suicide Bombers," a Taliban militant who kidnapped young boys, brainwashed them in their hundreds, then sent them out to slaughter thousands of Pakistanis as "living bombs"). Anti-drone rallies led by such populist leaders as Imran Khan then pushed the current Nawaz Sharif government to demand an end to the unpopular strikes. The anti-drone protestors' mantra was that the drones caused the terrorism, not vice versa. Prime Minister Sharif responded to the anti-drone uproar by beginning peace negotiations with the Taliban. He promised an end to the drone blitz if the insurgents came to the negotiating table. The Obama administration seems to have then caved into the pressure from Sharif to give peace talks a chance and the last drone strike in Pakistan took place on December 25, 2013. The Pakistani government hoped that its goodwill gesture would be accepted by the Taliban and lead to peace negotiations and end to the sickening violence.
In this hope the Pakistanis appear to have been deluded and the talks have collapsed. As the bold attack on Karachi's international airport by Taliban on June 9th which led to the death of 28 Pakistanis clearly indicates, the Taliban have not accepted President Sharif's olive branch. Far from it, they have become emboldened and came to see Sharif's peace efforts and the end of the withering drone campaign as a sign of weakness. This fits the Taliban maximalists' modus operandi which, in the past, has led them to cynically exploit peace treaties to extend their power, on one occasion moving to within one hundred miles of the Pakistani capital before being belatedly repulsed.
Pakistan's Express Tribune announced this development, which seems to have caught many naive Pakistanis by surprise, as follows "The government conceded that despite its claim that the halt in drone strikes would put an end to terrorism and pave the way for smooth negotiations with the Taliban, splinter Taliban Pakistan factions were still carrying out attacks." One of Nawaz Sharif's deputies in the Senate went so far as to state "It was believed that terrorists attacked because of the drone strikes, but there is a possibility that this might not have been true in some cases."
As the previous quote demonstrates, many Pakistanis seem to have bought into the myth that the "terrorists attacked because of the drone strikes." But this is clearly not the case since the drone campaign did not begin in earnest until 2008, that is six years after the Pakistani Taliban declared a terroristic-secessionist jihad on the secular Pakistani state. For six years prior to the commencement of the intensive drone campaign in 2008, the Taliban had been sending waves of suicide bombers into Pakistan from their FATA tribal domains with the aim of shredding the fabric of Pakistani society. Up to 3,000 Pakistani civilians were deliberately killed per year in this slow motion version of 9/11 that dwarfed the number of 156 civilians accidentally killed in the drone strikes in ten years.
And that is not all. The Taliban had been beheading captured Pakistani troops, overturning Pakistan's laws and brutally enforcing strict shariah law, whipping women, destroying schools etc. long before the drone blitz of 2008 began. It is thus historical revisionism to suggest that the drone strikes drove the Taliban to terrorism as many Pakistanis counter-intuitively believe. This is clearly not a case of which came first, the chicken or the egg. The terrorist campaign was in full force long before the drones were sent in to suppress it.
History has clearly shown that the Taliban has used previous lulls from drone-fired Hellfire and Scorpion missiles to regroup, train, publicly exert their power, and organize further attacks from the FATA into Pakistan proper. There was, for example, a lull in drone strikes back in 2012 that came as a boon to the terrorists. The New York Times was to report during that previous hiatus in drone strikes "A nearly two-month lull in American drone strikes in Pakistan has helped embolden Al Qaeda and several Pakistani militant factions to regroup, increase attacks against Pakistani security forces and threaten intensified strikes against allied forces in Afghanistan." A Taliban member interviewed at the time of the 2012 lull in drone strikes said of the drones, "there is no fear anymore."
Ultimately the drone strike did begin anew and the Taliban once again began to fear the drones back in 2012. The same thing appears to have happened again last week when the CIA, after a five and half month lull, launched two strikes on Taliban targets on Wednesday, June 11 and Thursday, June 12 killing sixteen militants. The dead reportedly included several suspected commanders from the Haqqani network, the very network that had held Private Bowe Bergdahl captive for five years, as they were transporting explosives for an attack. Four Uzbeks from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a group allied to the Taliban who were involved in the recent attack on Karachi's Jinnah International Airport, were also killed in the strike.
The Pakistani government was quick to condemn the strike as a "violation of Pakistan's sovereignty," despite the fact that those killed in the strike were terrorists who belonged to two organizations that had just carried out the bloody airport attack in Karachi. The Pakistanis thus seem to once again be at cross purposes with the Americans who are targeting the very militants who are at war with the Pakistani state.
It remains to be seen whether or not the drone campaign will recommence in full swing in tandem with a recent Pakistani military offensive against the Taliban in North Waziristan which came as a response to the Jinnah Airport attack and breakdown of the peace talks. While the future of the CIA drone campaign in Pakistan is uncertain, the terrorists have been given advance notice that the drones are once again hunting them. The skies are now filled with deadly robotic killers that can strike at any time. This can only assist the Pakistanis in their efforts against an enemy that poses the greatest current threat to the Pakistani state and people. Only now there can be no doubt that the Taliban's terror campaign is not a response to the drones, it has a life of its own and will continue to threaten Pakistan whether the drone campaign continues or not.
For a history of the CIA's drone campaign in Pakistan see the author's recent book: Predators. The CIA's Drone War on Al Qaeda For a history of the war in neighboring Afghanistan see the author's 2012 book: Afghanistan Declassified. A Guide to America's Longest War.