On August 20, 2008, two missiles fired from a US drone killed eight people in Wana, South Waziristan. This was the first drone attack after military dictator General Pervez Musharraf resigned from the office of president, and made way for the elected government of the PPP in 2008. This was also the first drone strike confirmed by director general of Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR).
Before this neither the US nor the Pakistan military establishment had confirmed the use of unmanned drone strikes to kill al-Qaeda operatives hiding in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Then DG ISPR Major General Athar Abbas had refused to confirm that a US drone killed a senior al-Qaeda leader in January 29, 2008. Back then, Pakistan military claimed credit for killing the al-Qaeda militants.
The PPP was left in a quandary — to deal with the situation arising out of the United States Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) drone campaign in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The PPP government started confirming the killings of militants by the US drones, mainly because of the many revelatory reports appearing in the national and international media, confirming the CIA operations in tribal areas of Pakistan. The Pakistan state narrative on the operations had to be in synch with eyewitness accounts from the locals, confirmed reports in the international media and quotes from unnamed Pakistani intelligence officials operating in the tribal areas.
Between June 18, 2004 and November 2, 2007, reports of about 10 drone strikes appeared in the national and international media. In these three years, the drones mostly targeted houses, compounds and madrassahs in North and South Waziristan.
However, during this period, ambiguity surrounded the drone attacks. The extent of collateral damage remained a mystery. Occasional confirmation came from locals, who would mention a “spy drone” seen flying overheard minutes before the “missile attack”.
The Pakistan state narrative on the operations had to be in synch with eyewitness accounts from the locals, confirmed reports in the international media and quotes from unnamed Pakistani intelligence officials operating in the tribal areas.
The Pakistani military was in denial or was perhaps protecting the forces involved in the attacks. For instance, soon after the first drone strike on Pakistan territory on June 18, 2004 that killed Nek Muhammad, a military spokesman said, “Nek Muhammad was suspected to be present in a hideout with his associates and our security forces acted swiftly on the information and that is how he was killed.” He did not specify the missile or weapon system used to kill Muhammad.
Reporting on the killing of Nek Muhammed in South Waziristan for The New York Times on April 6, 2013, Mark Mazzetti wrote, “A Pakistani military spokesman was quick to claim responsibility for the attack, saying that Pakistani forces had fired at the compound… That was a lie”.
He added, “Muhammad and his followers had been killed by the C.I.A”.
It was difficult for the Pakistan media to access the power corridors in Islamabad to convincingly report the killing of Nek Muhammad and his followers in the drone strike. Contrary to the claims of the military spokesperson, Dawn disclosed that Nek Muhammad was talking on his satellite phone before the missile hit him, with the implications that his location was picked by the American intelligence through their eavesdropping technology.
During the five-year tenure of the PPP government, from 2008 to 2013, the CIA waged about 4000 drone strikes against al-Qaeda leaders and Pakistani Taliban operatives in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
“The PPP government or the successive civilian governments were simply not a part of this equation… they had nothing to do with whatever was going on between Pakistan’s security establishment and the US’s CIA,” says a retired military official on the condition of anonymity.
But the military leaders under General Musharraf started to get frustrated with the US arrogance and indifference to local sensitivities that the Pakistan military establishment took seriously. Imran Khan, who was then trying to make a passionate bid for the office of leader of the opposition, jumped into the foray as a front man for the military men that wanted to build pressure on the military and civilian establishment to react strongly against the US administration.
The real catalyst for mobilizing international public opinion was the policy change introduced by the PPP government in the wake of Musharraf’s ouster from power — when the PPP compelled the military to admit publicly that the US were behind the mysterious drone killings in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
The changing opinion in Washington about the reliability of the Pakistani military as a partner in the War on Terror was another factor that hardened the Pakistan security establishment’s attitude to drones. “The drone war in Pakistan took place during an increasingly toxic, mutually resentful period in the long, unhappy chronicle of relations between the United States and Pakistan. To many Pakistanis, including army officers and intelligence officials in the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or I.S.I., drone strikes have symbolized American arrogance. Within the C.I.A. and the White House, a belief took hold that Pakistani generals and intelligence chiefs were unreliable partners in the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Administration officials concluded that since Pakistan wouldn’t help adequately to protect U.S. soldiers and American cities, they would send drones to do the job,” writes investigative journalist Steve Coll, for the New Yorker in November 17, 2014.
Pakistan military never doubted the utility of drone strikes in fight against al-Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban. This opinion was reinforced after the CIA killed Pakistan military’s foremost enemies, like Baitul Mehsud and Hakimullah Mehsud, in drone strikes. Pakistani military officials in more than one media briefing had admitted the utility of drone strikes. The developing adverse public opinion led the military establishment to harden the position against drones. And, again, Imran Khan acted as a pawn of the military establishment, when he launched a protest campaign against drone strikes in October 2012.
The real catalyst for mobilising international public opinion was the policy change introduced by the PPP government in the wake of Musharraf’s ouster from power — when the PPP compelled the military to admit publicly that the US were behind the mysterious drone killings in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
I vividly remember the angry reaction of a tribesman in Bajaur against the drone strike on a local seminary in 2006. When I reminded him that General Musharraf was claiming credit for this attack, he said, “He [Musharraf] is a liar… Americans killed our kids”.
Tribesmen’s sense of alienation towards those controlling the Pakistan state is no trivial matter.