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
March 28, 2012 -- Updated 0954 GMT (1754 HKT)
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
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
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
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 0148 GMT (0948 HKT)
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
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
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?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
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
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
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
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
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
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
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.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
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.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
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
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
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
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
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.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
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.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
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
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
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
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
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
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
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
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
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?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
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
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT