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Smart bombs, stupid pilots

December 07, 2011


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.