Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Drones decimating Taliban in Pakistan

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst, and Jennifer Rowland, Special to CNN
July 4, 2012 -- Updated 0141 GMT (0941 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Peter Bergen, Jennifer Rowland: Administration quietly targeting militants in Pakistan with drones
  • They say attacks spiked on Obama's watch, from one every 40 days, to one every 4 days
  • They say since 2004 1,562 to 2,377 suspected militants killed; but program decried in Pakistan
  • Writers: Program seems effective, but anger over it may fuel terrorism

Editor's note: Peter Bergen, CNN's national security analyst, is a director at the New America Foundation and the author of the new book, "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad." 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) -- On Sunday a missile launched from a U.S. drone struck a house in Pakistan's remote tribal agency of North Waziristan, killing eight suspected militants, most of whom were loyal to the Pakistani Taliban commander, Hafiz Gul Bahadur. Bahadur has reportedly overseen multiple attacks against NATO troops in Afghanistan.

While the CIA drone war against al Qaeda in Pakistan is well known and is even, on occasion, publicly acknowledged by senior Obama administration officials, the strike against Bahadur's fighters is part of a lesser-known campaign to target Pakistani militants, who are less able to pose a threat to the U.S. homeland. This represents an expansion of the drone program that was overseen by President Barack Obama's administration.

In 2004 President George W. Bush authorized for the first time the covert lethal use of drones inside Pakistani territory. During his tenure, there were 45 drone strikes in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), according to data compiled by the New America Foundation.

Peter Bergen reports on location in Afghanistan.
Peter Bergen reports on location in Afghanistan.

But when President Obama took office in January 2009, the program ramped up quickly, accelerating from an average of one strike every 40 days to one every four days by mid-2011.

The New America Foundation maintains a database of every reported drone strike in Pakistan's tribal regions since 2004. We monitor reports about the strikes from reliable Western and Pakistani news sources, such as The New York Times, The Associated Press, CNN, Reuters, Express Tribune, Dawn, and Geo TV.

All told, the 307 drone strikes launched by the United States in Pakistan between June 2004 and June 2012 have killed an estimated 1,562 to 2,377 suspected militants, according to news accounts.

Pakistan to open supply routes into Afghanistan

Of those strikes, 70% have struck North Waziristan, home to factions of the Pakistani Taliban and the Haqqani Network, which has often launched operations in Kabul against civilian targets.

Pros and cons of drones
Obama's secret wars
How Obama managers war on terror

Over a third of these strikes have reportedly targeted members of the Taliban, with at least 10 of the strikes killing senior Taliban commanders, as well as hundreds of lower-level fighters.

The United States' aggressive drone campaign in Pakistan slowed considerably in 2011. There were 70 drone strikes in the tribal regions that year, down from 118 in 2010, which saw the peak number of strikes since the program began.

According to our data, 6% of the fatalities resulting from drone strikes in 2011 were civilians, up 1 percentage point from the figure in 2010. Over the life of the program we estimate that the civilian casualty rate is 16%.

Clearly, as the years have progressed, the drone strikes have become more precise and discriminating. In March 2011, Pakistani Maj. Gen. Ghayur Mehmood acknowledged this when he said "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 Obama made his first public comments about the covert drone program, when he told participants of a Google+ "hangout" on January 30, 2012, 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. During the summer of 2010 the New America Foundation sponsored one of the few public opinion polls ever to be conducted in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas and found that almost 90% of the respondents opposed U.S. military operations in the region.

The wider Pakistani public shares this sentiment: A June 2012 Pew Research Center poll found that about three quarters of Pakistanis consider the drone campaign to be unnecessary.

Opinion: Obama ramps up covert war in Yemen

Even so, the strikes may have contributed to a relative decrease in violence across Pakistan. There were 41 suicide attacks in Pakistan in 2011, down from 49 in 2010 and a record high of 87 in 2009. The 118 drone strikes carried out in 2010 coincided with an almost 50% drop in suicide attacks across Pakistan, according to the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, which monitors Pakistani militant groups.

(Another factor in the reduction in terrorism in Pakistan surely was the Pakistani military's own operations against the Taliban, particularly its 2009 campaigns in Swat and South Waziristan. Some 1,600 Taliban fighters were killed during "Operation Rah-e-Rast" in Swat while hundreds more surrendered to the government.)

Evidence of the drone strikes' impact can be found in the description provided by David Rohde, the former New York Times reporter held by the Taliban Haqqani Network for months in 2009, who called the drones "a terrifying presence" in South Waziristan.

Officials: U.S. may repay Pakistan

Key militant commanders reportedly started sleeping outside under trees to avoid being targeted, while Taliban militants regularly executed suspected "spies" in Waziristan accused of providing information to the United States, suggesting they feared betrayal from within.

Last month, a top Taliban commander in South Waziristan halted all polio eradication efforts in the area for fear that the health workers were, in fact, U.S. spies in disguise assisting the CIA drone program.

The CIA drone attacks in Pakistan have undoubtedly hindered some of the Taliban's operations, killed hundreds of their low-level fighters, and a number of their top commanders. But they have also slowed considerably since their peak in 2010, and have come under harsher scrutiny both in Pakistan and the West, rendering the program's future in the region uncertain.

The CIA strikes may also be fueling terrorism. Faisal Shahzad, an American citizen of Pakistan descent trained by the Pakistan Taliban, tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square on May 1, 2010. The plot failed, but Shahzad subsequently claimed that the drone program had fueled his anger against the United States.

*

Here is a list of the Taliban leaders who have been killed in the CIA drone campaign, according to data compiled by the New America Foundation from reliable news reports :

June 18, 2004: Nek Mohammad, Taliban leader

August 13, 2008: Abdul Rehman, Taliban commander in South Waziristan

October 26, 2008: Mohammad Omar, close associate of Nek Mohammad

August 5, 2009: Baitullah Mehsud, overall leader of the Pakistani Taliban

December 31, 2009: Haji Omar, a key Taliban commander in North Waziristan

January 2010 (exact date unknown): Mahmud Mahdi Zeidan, Jordanian Taliban commander

February 24, 2010: Mohammad Qari Zafar, Taliban commander wanted in connection with a bombing in Karachi in 2006

December 17, 2010: Ibne Amin, Taliban commander in Swat

October 27, 2011: Khan Mohammad, Deputy of Taliban commander Maulvi Nazir

March 13, 2012: Shamsullah and Amir Hamza Toji Khel, two of Maulvi Nazir's senior commanders

Read more about nation and global security at CNN's Security Clearance blog.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1812 GMT (0212 HKT)
By now it should be painfully obvious that this latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in Gaza is fundamentally different than its predecessors.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 2124 GMT (0524 HKT)
Sally Kohn says like the Occupy Wall Street protesters, Market Basket workers are asking for shared prosperity.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2331 GMT (0731 HKT)
President Obama will convene an Africa summit Monday at the White House, and Laurie Garrett asks why the largest Ebola epidemic ever recorded is not on the agenda.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Seventy years ago, Anne Frank made her final entry in her diary -- a work, says Francine Prose, that provides a crucial link to history for young people.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2350 GMT (0750 HKT)
Van Jones says "student" debt should be called "education debt" because entire families are paying the cost.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2300 GMT (0700 HKT)
Marc Randazza: ESPN commentator fell victim to "PC" police for suggesting something outside accepted narrative.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says working parents often end up being arrested after leaving kids alone.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2031 GMT (0431 HKT)
Shanin Specter says we need to strengthen laws that punish auto companies for selling defective cars.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
ADVERTISEMENT