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Smart bombs, stupid pilots

Published Dec 07, 2011 04:10pm


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Months before the deadly attack in the Mohmand region that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, the American administration was boasting to the world of their sophistication and precision in airborne warfare. Speaking of the drones and smart guided bombs President Barack Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, claimed in June 2011 that for over a year “there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop.”

If the US administration were to be believed, the attack by piloted planes and helicopters on the Pakistani check post in November 2011 presents an interesting comparison: the bombs fired from pilot-less drones appear smarter than the Nato pilots who caused the death of 24 friendlies.

The Mohmand region attack should be an eye opener for Pakistanis and the rest of the world who have been told by the US administration that the drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas, which have killed increasingly more people since 2009; the same year when President Obama received his Nobel Peace Prize, target only the militants and the number of civilians victims of such attacks is literally zero. If the piloted planes and helicopters cannot distinguish between friends and foes in Mohmand region, how can one believe that drones piloted by agents housed in nondescript buildings in northern Virginia are delivering a war without civilian victims?


The CIA is not alone in making the outrageous claims about the clinical precision of America’s airborne war on terror in Pakistan. Some very prominent US academics have also joined in propagating the impression that the drone strikes in Pakistan are targeting only the ‘evil-doers’. In August 2011, Professor C. Christine Fair, a professor at the Center for Peace and Security Studies in Georgetown University, told The New York Times that the drones were “highly effective” and the civilian casualties were very low.

CIA’s claim of zero collateral damage in the American war in Pakistan’s tribal areas, which is also supported by some prominent American academics and journalists, would have gone unchallenged had it not been the hard work of investigative journalists at the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism. In a detailed study of the drone strikes in Pakistan, the Bureau estimates that hundreds of Pushtun children and scores of other civilians have fallen victim to the American bombings in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

The Bureau’s extensive research in August 2011 revealed that since 2004, the 309 drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas have killed 2,347 people. Amongst the dead are 175 children. The Bureau estimates the number of dead civilians to be between 391 and 780. Of the 309 drone attacks, 257 strikes were conducted under President Obama. The Bureau has also made a 22,000 word searchable online database available so that one can perform due diligence on their claim that the CIA war in Pakistan’s tribal areas is producing scores of innocent victims.

Many have cited the lack of credible information from Waziristan, or ‘semisecrecy’ about the drone attacks as Professor Fair puts it, to be the reason why they have bought into CIA’s version of the victim-free war in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The elaborate work of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which lists the civilian victims of 500-lbs bombs dropped from drones, has effectively countered CIA’s narrative of the war that was hitherto not challenged by any other independent institution.

It will be, however, foolhardy to deny or underestimate the militant threat against the State and the people of Pakistan. The purpose of raising alarm about the civilian deaths caused by drones is not to ignore the ongoing tribal rebellion against the State of Pakistan. Indeed the armed rebellion by the Pushtun tribes in Pakistan presents a clear and present danger.

However, portraying all tribal Pushtuns as rebels or terrorists is extremely unfortunate and irresponsible. Therefore, CIA’s claim that those who die in drone attacks, including dead children, are either militants or terrorists is demeaning to all Pushtuns and Pakistanis.

It is no secret that guerilla warfare has been taking place between Pushtun militants and Pakistan armed forces in the Baizai Tehsil, which borders Afghanistan, in Mohmand region. The November 26 Nato attack on Pakistani check posts also took place in the same remote area. The militants have reportedly attacked Pakistani troops over the past two years. Reports suggest that often Afghanistan-based militants also cross over into Pakistan to attack check posts established on the Pakistan side of the border.

It has also been reported that several times during 2010 and 2011 air support was called in to pound militant positions in Baizai Tehsil (see the table below for examples of attacks). For instance, on June 30, 2011, 40 militants were reportedly killed in a response by fighter jets and gunship helicopters. Similarly, on April 12, 2011, fighter jets and gunship helicopters were again called in for a strike on militants in the same remote regions that left 12 militants dead.

It is evident from several reports that air strikes have been called on militants on the Pakistani side of the border. However, what is not clearly stated in press releases is the origin of helicopter gunships and fighter jets used in attacks in Baizai Tehsil. Did the air support called in Baizai Tehsil in the past belong to Pakistan Air Force or did it belong to the Nato’s air fleet, which is based in Afghanistan? The answer to this question will help explain what transpired in the early hours of November 26.


Waziristan and other parts of Pakistan’s tribal areas are no longer an information black hole. Academics and journalists, who have chosen to subscribe to the version of the war promoted by CIA and its counterparts, should know that other narratives of victim hood do exist, which at least deserve scrutiny, if not sympathy.

The death of 19 children (amongst 168 dead) in the Oklahama City bombing by the US Army veteran Timothy McVeigh in April 1995 generated outrage within the US and abroad. The innocent victims of Mr. McVeigh’s rage were mourned by all. One wonders who, other than their parents, will grieve the death of 175 child victims of CIA’s drone attacks.

The war in Afghanistan, which has effectively spilled into Pakistan, is leaving victims on both sides of the border and the ideological divide. Militants, military-men, and civilians are paying the price of war with their lives. The US has arbitrarily decided to end the war in 2014 by withdrawing Nato troops from Afghanistan. Not much will change in ground realities between now and 2014. Afghanistan will not become any more prosperous, secure, or stable by the time Nato will pack up and march out of Afghanistan. At the same time, irrespective of the firepower at Nato’s disposal, Taliban militants will outlast Nato in the Pushtun majority areas of Afghanistan.

Hundreds, if not thousands, more will become the fodder of war between now and 2014. It would make sense to end the hostilities in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas sooner than 2014 so that sincere efforts could be launched for reconciliation. War has not delivered a détente or surrender to date. It has only delivered death and destruction to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“This war should end now”, demanded the 70-year old grieving mother of Sergeant Mumtaz Hussain, who was killed last month in the attack by Nato. “I want peace for the sons of other mothers. This war serves nobody and our government must come out of it,” said the grieving mother. I hope the decision-makers in Islamabad and Washington, DC, would listen to the mother who has lost her son to a war that is likely to end in a futile stalemate.


Murtaza Haider, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of research and graduate programs at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto.  He can be reached by email at

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group or Ryerson University.


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Comments (20) Closed

Akshay Dec 07, 2011 06:45pm
What about the Mothers, son of whom have been killed by the dead son of the mother you are referring to.
Ravi Dec 07, 2011 07:40pm
Terrorists must be blamed for hiding among the civilians. Pakistan government is either unwilling or unable to take control the terrorists in border regions. So US government has no choice but to take unilateral action.
saythetruth Dec 07, 2011 08:07pm
Excellent article. To "Akshay" keep on using the excuses just look at the number of innocent people killed by the drones. Shame on anybody who tries to justify the loss life. Any killing is bad it not about our or their death it about innocent people killed in these never ending wars. Excellent job Murtaza keep up the good work, you are doing a better job the Pakistani officials.
mc Dec 07, 2011 08:51pm
to be exact who did he kill in a friendly fire akshay? blame game is too easy. soldiers on ground (US or Pak) wont solve the problem... its islamabad and washington who should take responsibility and that is what murtaza said.
Naveed Dec 07, 2011 09:28pm
Ironic, that Nobel peace prize. He should give it back.
Bill Dec 08, 2011 01:44am
No accidents here, no stupid pilots Every missile strike has multiple levels of approvals Pakustan needs to clean up house, or these "accidents" will be more frequent
G.A. Dec 08, 2011 03:11am
@Akshay - what makes you think that these deceased soldiers actually killed anybody?
Kanwal Dec 08, 2011 03:32am
How does that become a point Mr Akshay? you kind of missed the whole point of the article: It is for mothers of at least those two sides..Re-read it please, would you?
Kanwal Dec 08, 2011 03:35am
Bravo Mr Haider...and an excellent title.
Fuad Rashid Dec 08, 2011 05:22am
A very informative article presenting a side of the casualties of war that are not considered human enough(muslims =terrorists) by CIA,Dod to be coutnted as collateral damage.
Agha Ata Dec 08, 2011 06:45am
I agree with you. Why not to mourn for everybody who is killed?
Rais Dec 08, 2011 07:00am
War is evil, let's find peaceful solution , The British , then Russians and now American, every country has lost their sons, negotiate peace for all.
azhar Dec 08, 2011 07:54am
Innocent and helpless people and children are pray of this war. USA lost about 4000 at September 11. In the response of this event, Iraq lost over. many hundred thousand, Pakistan. lost over 40k and how many Afghani are dead not counted far. I want to remind all who cursed past atrocities and war one nation committed on the other, those people who were impartial then, are brainwashed. They are given the impression anyone who born that part of the world is terrorist. This pretext is used to usher atrocities on Iraq, Afghanistan and people of Pakistan. I wish I could share their is an immediate end to this conflict.Pakistan government hands are cut and they can not do any thing to stop it.
Shirish Dec 08, 2011 10:50am
It is for the local population to not to allow militants to take shelter or live amongst them. If they do so and are felled as collateral damage - they have no one to blame but themselves.
El Khan Dec 08, 2011 12:49pm
If history is to repeat itself, then by the time the US exits from Afghanistan, Pakistan will begin to resemble post-US Cambodia.
TK Dec 08, 2011 06:38pm
Please raise similar voice against militants/terrorists who are killing innocents and also the institutions which are supporting them. Unless terrorism is out many people would be dying :(
Lakhkar Khan Dec 09, 2011 08:06pm
Shirish, Fair enough. However, these are killers and murderers. They don't need local population's approval to be around. Local population is unarmed and peaceful and murderers are not. Moreover, they don't walk around announcing their intentions. The easiest game in the world is the blame game.
Manuel Dias Dec 09, 2011 08:30pm
US always wants enemities to flourish in every region of the world. They will sometimes prop up Pakistan to work against India and sometimes they will be close to India to instigate China. What they did with Iraq, Afghanistan and what they intend to do in Iran -- it is very well and thought out strategy. They want to be in War all the time. That way they test their planes & bombs. All of us, mainly Indians & Pakistani's need to understand the nefarious designs of US. Unless we understand them, we will keep on fighting among ourselves and US will keep on adding fuel.
Hina Dec 15, 2011 12:03pm
Please..dont demean humanity with such comments. We take responsibilty for these terrorists, which is why the Army is fighting them, belatedly, I agree, but still..the US should also take responsibility and accept that fanatics like Al-Qaeda nad the Taliban are a direct product of the multiple wars waged by them, from the Cold War, to the present.
Hina Dec 15, 2011 12:06pm
Yes, I wholeheartedly second that..