The CIA's drone program began in 2004 but picked up substantially in 2009 after President Obama took office. According to an ABC News tally, there have been more than 230 strikes inside Pakistan in the past three years. By many accounts, the campaign has helped gut al Qaeda's leadership in Pakistan. U.S. and even some Pakistani government officials say that drones have eliminated more than a dozen senior militant leaders -- deaths often confirmed by al Qaeda itself.
But the drones have also killed thousands of other people. Different U.S. observers have offered wildly varying estimates of the precision of the drone attacks, with the New America Foundation stating that 80 percent of those killed are militants, while the Brookings Institution said in 2009 that ten civilians die for every militant killed.
The technology and the accuracy of the strikes improved drastically after 2008. But the CIA has never provided any evidence that its targets have all been militants, despite a remarkable claim by John Brennan, President Obama's chief counterterror advisor, back in June. In the past year, Brennan said, "There hasn't been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we've been able to develop."
The drone campaign has fed the mounting unpopularity of the U.S. among the Pakistani population, and U.S. officials admit it puts extra pressure on a Pakistani government that is weak and a Pakistani military that is upset because the U.S. has begun to run the once-joint campaign almost unilaterally. But this year, the CIA seems to have bowed to Pakistani interests when it stopped drone strikes twice: once, after a CIA contractor killed two Pakistanis in Lahore, and after NATO helicopters killed 24 Pakistani troops on Nov. 25.
One U.S. official suggested that the human rights activists who are trying to document the drone strikes are sponsored by Pakistani intelligence agencies. The activists deny the accusation and say that Tariq's story is not extraordinary.
"America genuinely thinks it's killing terrorists, and doesn't understand what it's doing is making so many people so angry," said the founder of Reprieve, Clive Stafford Smith, during a recent visit in Pakistan, where he helped organize the anti-drone events.
The activists accuse the CIA of killing dozens, if not hundreds, of civilians in the last few years, even as they admit that the campaign has also killed militants.
But the issue is not as simple as what Pakistanis and activists say versus what the United States says. Speaking privately, many senior Pakistani government officials and people from North and South Waziristan say the drone strikes are better than the alternative: Pakistani military offensives. Artillery and bombs dropped by Pakistani F-16s, these defenders say, are much less precise than missiles launched by drones. And since the U.S. is not allowed to send ground troops into Pakistan, the drones are "the only game in town," as former CIA Director Leon Panetta once put it.
Still, this year, the U.S. has been willing to engage Pakistan over how it uses drones -- something it was unwilling to do at the beginning of the Obama administration, according to Pakistani officials. The guidelines under which the drones operate were established under then President Pervez Musharraf, who did not insist on a written agreement, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials. So when the U.S. began the campaign by giving Pakistani intelligence officials prior notice -- and then took that notice away -- there was little Pakistan could do.
In the last few months, according to a senior U.S. official, the U.S. has agreed to provide more notice on strikes that target groups of fighters, though not on strikes that target individual people. As part of the tension since the NATO attack that killed Pakistani soldiers, the Pakistani military has said it will demand even more concessions on drone strikes.
"Everything should be formalized, and everything should act within the parameters we set," a senior Pakistani military official said, drawing a virtual box with his fingers.
For their part, the human rights campaigners want a reckoning of the deaths, and they are planning on suing on behalf of victims' families in Pakistani courts.
Akbar, who is representing the family of Tariq Khan, says Khan's case will be taken up after the new year. He says his motivation is to end the strikes permanently and to get compensation for the victims. The head of the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, a Pakistani human rights group, Akbar hopes to increase public pressure in Pakistan by raising awareness of who the drones kill.
Activists also hope the deaths are noticed beyond Pakistan, particularly inside the country that is launching the drones. They want Americans to question their government about who is being killed.
"We have to persuade the American people that a young lad like Tariq is like my son Wilfred," said Smith of Reprieve. "Until we get the people of the United States and the West to see the dead children of Pakistan the same way we'd see our own dead children, we're not going to win this battle."