On January 1, 2009, a US drone strike killed two senior al-Qaeda leaders, the first in what then President-elect Barack Obama had said would be a dramatic escalation of the aerial bombardment of Pakistan’s tribal area.
And escalate it did. The US launched 44 distinct drone strikes in Pakistan in 2009, far more than in previous years. The pinnacle of America’s drone achievements was in August, when they killed Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader Baitullah Mehsud.
Much has been made of the successes, but while the strikes have been regular and they almost always are presented by Pakistan’s intelligence community as having killed “suspects,” the actual successes are few and far between, with only five confirmed kills of real militant leaders, and a handful of unconfirmed claims that usually haven’t panned out.
The vast majority of the deaths, around 700 according to one estimate, have been innocent civilians. With such a massive civilian toll and so little to show for it, it is no wonder that Pakistani people have been up in arms over the continued strikes.
But US officials have rarely commented on the drone strikes, except on those rare occasions when they actually kill someone meaningful, and seem completely ambivalent to the hundreds of innocent people killed in the meantime. The ultimate example of this was June 22-23.
On June 22, the US struck at a house officials called a “suspected militant hideout,” burying a few locals inside. When others rushed to the scene to rescue them, they launched another missile, killing 13 apparently innocent Pakistanis. When they held a funeral procession on June 23, the US hit that too, ostensibly on the belief that Baitullah Mehsud might be among the mourners. He wasn’t, but the attack killed at least 80 more people.
When announcing the December escalation into Afghanistan, President Obama reportedly also approved an escalation of drone strikes into Pakistan. It seems unlikely that the intelligence has gotten any better, however, and civilians across North and South Waziristan are in an understandable panic.