Pakistan: the decade of drones

Drones may offer an appealing alternative to the US after Iraq and Afghanistan but they don’t provide genuine security.

Caroline Donnellan Esther Kersley
22 June 2014

The past week has marked ten years since the first reported US drone strike in Pakistan. It has also seen the resumption of strikes following a five-month pause. So how effective has the covert programme been and what impact have drones had on Pakistani society?

Since 2004, the US has launched more than 380 strikes in the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA). As part of its “war on terror”, they were intended to eliminate mainly al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban from the region. But a report by Dr Wali Aslam, commissioned by the Remote Control project, has found that drone strikes, rather than eliminating “terrorists”, have instead caused militants to leave FATA for other parts of the country to avoid being hit. Although the US deems its programme a success—indeed it has pursued some “high-value” targets and decreased the number of fighters in FATA—this is short-term at best, as drones have simply displaced the problem. In turn, this relocation has brought radicalisation, violence and crime to the regions of Pakistan where the militants have resettled.

Unintended consequences

Drones are deeply unpopular in Pakistan, due to the civilian casualties, psychological damage and infringement of sovereignty they entail. Growing anti-American sentiment has provided an effective recruitment tool for extremists, fuelling rather than minimising radicalisation. And relocation as a result of drone strikes has widened that recruitment pool, as militants have spread to regions with which they previously had no connection.

In the Punjab, for example, there has been increased radicalisation among some Sunni Muslims. In Karachi, countless madrasas have provided a stream of potential recruits, undermining secular political parties such as Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the Awami National Party (ANP). The attack on Karachi international airport on 8-9 June, in which at least 28 people were killed—supposedly in retaliation for a US drone attack—is a further example of the penetration of the Pakistani Taliban there.

As the military technology for remote-control warfare spreads, there is a need to question whether drones provide significant tactical advantage or whether their proliferation could lead to greater long-term global insecurity.

There has also been an escalation in violence more broadly in Pakistan since 2007. There have been an estimated 50,000 deaths due to suicide bombings, improvised explosive devices and gun attacks—an incidence of paramilitary activity unprecedented in the country’s history. Is this upsurge linked to US drone strikes? The Remote Control report shows a correlation between violence in Karachi, the FATA’s Kurram Agency and Punjab province since 2007 and US drone attacks in FATA during this period.

Zooming in, in Karachi, attacks on secular parties, kidnapping and petty crime increased after 2010, coinciding with a dramatic rise in drone attacks in the same year (122, compared with 36 and 54 in 2008 and 2009 respectively). In Kurram Agency, the flight of large numbers of militants from neighbouring North Waziristan coincided with an increase in sectarian violence there (since 2007 the Turi Shia tribe has lost an estimated 2,000 members as a result). And in Punjab, an increase in attacks on Ahmadi, Shia and Christian communities since 2007 again coincided with many militants relocating from FATA.

Of course, the Pakistan army’s own operations in parts of FATA and the north-west have contributed to the relocation of militants but the role played by US drones has been largely neglected. Yet they have exacerbated a delicate, vulnerable and complex socio-political environment.

Remote-control warfare

The decade-long experience can teach us important lessons. It highlights the failure of drone warfare as a “counter-terrorism” strategy and thus the limitations of remote-control methods more broadly to resolve conflict. As armed drones are increasingly used by the US in Somalia, Yemen and Afghanistan—and by the UK in Afghanistan—with more reliance also being placed globally on special forces and private military companies, so the remote-control trend spreads.

The latest monthly briefing from the civil intelligence agency Open Briefing illustrates the proliferation of drone activity. The US is facing demands for access to drone technology from security partners—such as Algeria, Niger and Iraq—as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capacity. Iran has unveiled its reverse-engineered version of the US drone, the RQ-170 Sentinel, and its maturing drone-development programme is benefiting from operations in Syria. Meanwhile, the Israeli Air Force has been carrying out drills to prepare pilots to shoot down more advanced potential Hezbollah and Hamas drones, expected to be faster and able to stay airborne longer.

The volatile north-east Asia region is also seeing a rapid proliferation of unmanned technologies. The US Air Force will be deploying two Global Hawk drones from Misawa air base in Japan, for surveillance of North Korean and Chinese military activities. The Japanese Air Self-Defence Force is expected to procure three Global Hawks in 2015. South Korean officials have confirmed that drones found near the North Korean border in early April were most likely owned by North Korea. China has a vigorous armed-drone development programme, which appears to be prioritised for maritime security.

Global insecurity

As the military technology for remote-control warfare spreads, there is a need to question whether drones provide significant tactical advantage or whether their proliferation could lead to greater long-term global insecurity. A RAND report in April concluded that medium-range, non-stealth drones only deliver advantage in limited military contexts. Yet rapid growth is forecast in the drone market: in the same month, Forecast International predicted expansion of drone exports from $942m to $2.3 billion per year between 2013 and 2023. It estimated that, by 2017, the Aviation Industry Corporation of China would be the largest manufacturer and, by 2030, half of the aircraft fleets of some militaries could consist of drones.

The use of drones in Pakistan has spread the threat of violence to other parts of the country and detrimentally affected Pakistani society. Rapid drone proliferation raises serious concerns as technological developments and exports widen the range of deployers. Avoiding “boots on the ground” through remote warfare appears an attractive new means of “counter-terrorism”, for obvious reasons. But the unforeseen consequences which could render this counter-productive need to be factored into the equation.

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