Pakistan Urges Obama to Halt Drones

Civilian Deaths Anger Islamabad, But Strikes Have Been Effective Against Al Qaeda, U.S. Says


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Jan. 24, 2009—

In the smoldering wreckage of the 40th American drone attack in Pakistan in the last year, the government here learned that some things don't change.

Just three days after Barack Hussein Obama became the 44th American president, five missiles hit compounds in South and North Waziristan on Friday afternoon, killing at least 22 people, according to Pakistani intelligence officials.

The Pakistani government was largely silent in the hours after the attack, but today the foreign ministry formally objected, saying in a statement that civilians had been killed.

"With the advent of the new U.S. administration it is Pakistan's sincere hope that the United States will review its policy and adopt a more holistic and integrated approach towards dealing with the issue of terrorism and extremism," the statement said.

The Obama administration intends to help push a bill through Congress that would triple non-military aid to Pakistan, trying to raise people's standards of living and to help defeat a militancy by providing people alternative futures of jobs, prosperity and education for their children.

But it is clear that at the same time, a campaign of increased drone attacks begun by the Bush administration last summer, will continue because it is believed to be the best way to target al Qaeda in Pakistan's rugged and largely ungoverned tribal areas.

"Over the last five years we've gone from not using any unmanned systems in our military operations to using them every single day. And I don't see any great change in that trend," says P.W. Singer, the head of Obama's defense policy campaign team and currently a Brookings Institution fellow. "This is the future of war."

Singer helped write an Obama campaign paper, since adopted by the administration, that pledges to increase the funding for unmanned drones.

"We need greater investment in advanced technology ranging from the revolutionary, like Unmanned Aerial Vehicles [drones] and electronic warfare capabilities, to essential systems like the C-17 cargo and KC-X air refueling aircraft," reads the paper, which is posted on

"[Drones are] incredibly effective," said Singer, who is also the author of an upcoming book about modern warfare, "Wired for War."

"They can fly for greater distances for longer periods of time," he said. "They can operate over territory where the enemy doesn't know they're there. They're very quiet, they're very lethal. So they've been very useful in the strikes against adversaries like al Qaeda."

They have killed at least eight senior al Qaeda leaders, according to U.S. sources, and significantly reduced the freedom foreign Arab militants have had in the tribal areas.

The two strikes on Friday, which were carried out just a few hours apart, killed at least three foreign al Qaeda militants, according to Pakistani intelligence officials.

But Singer said the Obama administration knows full well the downside of missile strikes in a sovereign country.

That downside was on full display late this week in Islamabad, when about 1,000 people protested the drone attacks and the Pakistan military's presence in the tribal areas. The drone strikes have made the current government seem weak and the United States more unpopular than ever, analysts say.

"They are demonstrating that the government of Pakistan is totally ineffective," said Tariq Fatmi, a former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States. "It is further strengthening the extremist sentiments in Pakistan. And of course providing a lot of ammunition for those who would like to place America in the dog house, who want to ascribe all sorts of evil intentions to the United States."

"This is a loss to our country," said Mohammad Yaqub, a Rawalpindi resident. "A lot of children are getting murdered, women, big and small. Like Palestine or Iraq. There are a lot of problems for Muslims. It should not be so."

Keeping the drone strikes allows the Obama administration to pressure Pakistan to crack down on militants operating within its borders.

As the aerial attacks continue the United States is doubling down in Afghanistan, sending as many as 30,000 troops to augment the 32,000 currently in the country. Ten thousand of those troops are expected to be deployed close to the Afghan-Pakistan border, making Islamabad a little worried.

The U.S. military also signaled last week it plans to decrease its dependence on Pakistan as a supply route to deliver supplies and equipment to the troops fighting the war in Afghanistan. Today more than three quarters of the gear passes through Pakistan, but Central Command Chief Gen. David Petraeus told reporters in Islamabad alternative supply routes had been secured.