In the spring of 2004 the CIA began its most extensive targeted assassination campaign since the Vietnam War by launching dozens of unmanned aerial drones into the inaccessible tribal regions of Pakistan to hunt and kill Taliban and al-Qaeda militants. Since then, more than six hundred people have died in these unpredictable aerial strikes that have killed both high value terrorist targets and innocent civilians. Al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban leadership have been reeling from the deaths of their operatives even as the Pakistani public has commenced an outcry against this violation of their sovereignty and the deaths of civilian bystanders. This report will provide an outline of this murky drone war with the aim of shedding light on its tactical successes, collateral damage fallout, overall historical trajectories, and the secret deals between the Pakistani leadership and the White House that made the campaign possible.
Background to the Aerial Offensive
The primary weapon used in the aerial campaign, the MQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), had its debut as an unmanned spy plane in 1995 and was used in the campaigns against the Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo. While the original version of the Predator had the ability to loiter over the enemy, sending live video links back to its pilots operating from trailers at Creech Airbase, Nevada or CIA headquarters in Langley Virginia, it had no weapons systems at the time. As the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center picked up increasing “chatter” from al-Qaeda in early 2001, however, it began to explore the possibility of arming the Predator to hunt Bin Laden. In February 2001 the Air Force succeeded in mounting a laser designator to the Predator’s nose and adapting its wings to fire AGM-114 Hellfire missiles. The Predator’s deadly laser-guided missiles were reconfigured to penetrate mud walled compounds and SUVs and destroy them.
The armed version of the Predator saw considerable action during 2001-2002’s Operation Enduring Freedom. For example, it was used to fire on Taliban who were surrounding a Northern Alliance commander named Abdul Haq, used again to kill al-Qaeda’s number three, Muhammad Atef, and to assist U.S. troops in Operation Anaconda. It was also used in an unsuccessful attempt to kill the pro-Taliban Hezb-i Islami warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
As the Taliban subsequently retreated and regrouped in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), U.S. commanders in Afghanistan became increasingly frustrated by the enemy’s ability to launch cross-border raids from these untamed tribal regions. It also became obvious that al-Qaeda had found sanctuary in FATA with such Pakistani-based Taliban commanders as Maulana Nazir, Jalaludin Haqqani and the especially bold militant leader, Nek Muhammad. In FATA, al-Qaeda operatives plotted further terrorist attacks such as the 2006 plot to blow up planes flying from Heathrow Airport (AFP, September 8).
By 2002 the CIA was using Predator drones to monitor more than 150 al-Qaeda training facilities and Taliban bases in Pakistan’s FATA. At the time the press reported that the spy drones operating in Afghanistan were flying from a Pakistani base in Jacobabad in western Pakistan (New York Times, November 6, 2002; News International [Islamabad], October 27, 2008).
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