Skip to main content

CIA drone war in Pakistan in sharp decline

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst, and Jennifer Rowland, Special to CNN
updated 5:54 AM EDT, Wed March 28, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Authors: America's drone war in Pakistan is much diminished
  • They say it's a victim of a deeply troubled relationship between U.S., Pakistan
  • U.S. raid on bin Laden and other incidents sparked anger from Pakistanis, they say
  • Drones have killed many al Qaeda leaders, and some targets are low level, they say

Editor's note: Peter Bergen, CNN's national security analyst, is a director at the New America Foundation. His book "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden; From 9/11 to Abbottabad" will be published on May 1. Jennifer Rowland is a program associate at the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank which seeks innovative solutions across the ideological spectrum.

(CNN) -- The past year has seen the number of CIA drone strikes in Pakistan plummet. In the first three months of 2012, there were 11, compared with 21 in the first three months of 2011 and a record 28 in the first quarter of 2010.

On Monday, Pakistan's parliament started to debate whether the United States should be made to stop CIA drone strikes altogether in the Pakistani border regions with Afghanistan and also whether the U.S. should apologize for NATO airstrikes that killed some two dozen Pakistani soldiers late last year.

Given the high level of hostility to the United States in Pakistan, the results of the parliamentary debate are pretty much a foregone conclusion. The parliament will almost certainly vote against the allowing the continuation of the drone strikes and will also demand an American apology for the deaths of its soldiers.

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

Obama calls for balanced approach on U.S.-Pakistan relations

The debate in parliament comes as relations between the U.S. and Pakistan have reached a nadir, caused by a wave of incidents over the past year that have poisoned the two countries' already often troubled relationship:

Pakistan FM speaks out on U.S. relations

-- The killing of two Pakistanis by a CIA contractor in January 2011.

-- The unilateral U.S. attack on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad four months later.

-- The airstrikes by NATO in November that killed the Pakistani soldiers.

That incident caused Pakistan to close its borders to trucks resupplying NATO soldiers in Afghanistan.

At 2 a.m. November 26, two Pakistani border posts about half a kilometer from the Afghan border came under heavy fire from NATO helicopters that had strayed across the border into Pakistani airspace.

Pakistani officials immediately termed the attack, which killed 26 Pakistani soldiers, a "deliberate act of aggression," while U.S. officials maintained that the Pakistani security officials had fired on the helicopters first.

Either way, the friendly fire incident was devastating, not least to the U.S. drone program in Pakistan's tribal regions, which was subsequently suspended for almost seven weeks, one of the longest pauses in the strikes since the program started in 2004. Pakistan also ordered the United States to vacate Shamsi Air Base in Balochistan, from which many of the CIA drones were launched.

For many months before this incident, the United States' aggressive drone campaign in Pakistan had been slowing. There were 70 drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal regions in 2011, down from 118 in 2010, which saw the peak number of strikes since the program began.

The drop in drone strikes during 2011 was because a series of events that wore on the ever-fragile U.S.-Pakistan relationship. On January 27, 2011, an American citizen, Raymond Davis, shot and killed two Pakistanis who he said were attempting to rob him in the streets of Lahore.

Despite U.S. claims of diplomatic immunity because of Davis' employment at the U.S. consulate in Lahore, he landed in jail, charged with a double murder and illegal weapons possession. Much of the Pakistani public was outraged when it was revealed in February that Davis was a CIA contractor.

As a result of the complex negotiations to get Davis out of Pakistani jail, there were just three CIA drone strikes in February and another nine strikes in March while U.S. officials worked to settle the issue and finally bring Davis home.

The day after Davis was finally released, a strike on March 17, 2011, killed a reported 36 civilians, as well as a top Taliban commander. Pakistani officials condemned the strike, and Pakistanis took to the streets to protest them. The CIA suspended drone strikes for a month, before resuming them again on April 13.

Less than a month after the drone strikes had picked up, on May 1, U.S. Navy SEALs secretly flew into Pakistani territory aboard stealth helicopters to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, who was living not far from the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.

Pakistan's powerful military establishment was angry about the violation of its sovereignty, and relations between the U.S. and Pakistan sank further. For their part, many Americans were outraged that al Qaeda's leader had been living for years in a sizable city in central Pakistan.

Aware of how unpopular the drone strikes were becoming in Pakistan, some top U.S. Defense and State Department officials behind the scenes were pushing for more selective drone strikes, which the CIA opposed.

The White House ordered an evaluation of the drone program during the summer of 2011. The study found that the CIA was primarily killing low-level militants in its drone strikes.

Those results prompted the government to implement new rules in November governing when and how specific drone strikes were authorized. The State Department was given a larger say in the decision-making process. Pakistani leaders were promised advanced notification of some strikes. The CIA pledged to refrain from conducting strikes during visits by Pakistani officials to the United States.

But the new rules are unlikely to placate critics inside and outside of Pakistan, who condemn the violation of Pakistan's sovereignty and the killing of its civilians.

At the New America Foundation, we maintain an up-to-date database of every reported drone strike in Pakistan's tribal regions since 2004. We monitor reports about the strikes from the top Western and Pakistani news sources, such as The New York Times, Associated Press, CNN, Reuters, Express Tribune, Dawn, Geo TV and others.

According to our data, 7% of the fatalities resulting from drone strikes in 2011 were civilians, up 2 percentage points from our figure in 2010. Over the life of the CIA drone program in Pakistan from 2004 to 2012, we found that the civilian casualty rate has been 17%.

Clearly, as the years have progressed, the drone strikes have become more precise and discriminating. There is still considerable debate over how the U.S. government defines a "militant" and how easily it is able to distinguish between militants and civilians from a drone cruising tens of thousands of feet above the ground.

In March 2011, Maj. Gen. Ghayur Mehmood acknowledged that "the number of innocent people being killed is relatively low" and that "most of the targets are hard-core militants," the first such public acknowledgment by a senior Pakistani military officer.

Similarly, President Barack Obama made his first public comments about the covert drone program, when he told participants of a Google+ "hangout" on January 30 this year that the United States only conducts "very precise precision strikes against al Qaeda and their affiliates, and we're very careful in terms of how it's been applied."

Even if it is the case that there are relatively few civilians killed in the strikes, the drone program is quite unpopular in Pakistan.

The New America Foundation conducted one of the few public opinion polls in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas during the summer of 2010 and found that almost 90% of the respondents in the region where the drone strikes are located oppose U.S. military operations in the region.

The wider Pakistani public shares this sentiment, though to a lesser degree. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in June 2011 found that about six of every 10 Pakistanis consider the drone campaign to be unnecessary.

Despite the fact that the pace of drone strikes slowed considerably from 2010 to 2011, the number of strikes last year still ranked as the second-highest annual count since the drone program began.

And despite its deteriorating relations with Pakistan, the United States killed a number of key al Qaeda leaders with drone strikes in 2011. Al Qaeda's top operative in Pakistan and purported conduit between the terrorist group and the Pakistani Taliban, Ilyas Kashmiri, was reported killed in a strike on June 4.

Then, on August 22, a drone reportedly killed al Qaeda's top operational planner, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, dealing another heavy blow to the organization. And in September, a drone strike killed Abu Hafs al-Shihri, the man believed to be responsible for planning al Qaeda's operations in the region.

The continued success of strikes against al Qaeda's top leaders led Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to declare in July that the United States was "within reach of strategically defeating al Qaeda."

According to senior U.S. counterterrorism officials, al Qaeda's leadership bench has been so thinned by the drone campaign that there are only two real leaders of the organization left: bin Laden's successor as overall leader of the group, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Abu Yahya al-Libi.

This raises an interesting question: Maybe one of the reasons that the drone campaign has eased off in the past several months is that the CIA has begun to run out of real targets?

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT