Threats, Options, and Risks in Pakistan

U.S. Predator missile strikes in Pakistan have risen in the past year, writes Colin Cookman. But the question remains, how effective are they?

Pakistani tribesmen show pieces of missile in a house damaged by a suspected U.S. missile in Zharki village, near Miran Shah, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. (AP/Hasbunallah Khan)
Pakistani tribesmen show pieces of missile in a house damaged by a suspected U.S. missile in Zharki village, near Miran Shah, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. (AP/Hasbunallah Khan)

See also: Interactive Map: U.S. Airstrikes in Pakistan on the Rise

Read also: Partnership for Progress

On March 1, two missiles from a remote-piloted American aircraft struck a camp in the Sararogha region of South Waziristan. At least seven people were reportedly killed, including four Arab Al Qaeda fighters; few other details emerged, and the incident passed largely without remark. Covert strikes along Pakistan’s border, initially a relatively rare occurrence, have taken place with increasing frequency since the summer of 2008, when the Bush administration reportedly authorized an expansion of the covert targeting program in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Although operations have slowed from a peak tempo of multiple strikes per week, they have continued under the Obama administration, with two occurring just three days after the president’s inauguration.

Following the 2001 U.S. invasion and the disruption of their operational base in Afghanistan, surviving Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders fled to neighboring Pakistan and began to reestablish themselves in the loosely governed Federally Administered Tribal Areas. By 2007 the U.S. intelligence community was publicly warning that Al Qaeda had “reconstituted some of its pre-9/11 operational capabilities through the exploitation of [FATA], replacement of captured or killed operational lieutenants, and the restoration of some central control by its top leaders.” Addressing this threat is a top concern for the new Obama administration, but its options for action are frustratingly limited.

Remote response

Pakistan claims to have captured at least 630 Al Qaeda fighters and senior leaders since 2001, but cooperation with U.S. counterterrorism aims has frequently been sporadic and incomplete. Questions of political will aside, Pakistan’s basic capabilities in the FATA are limited by long traditions of maintaining only indirect rule through tribal proxies and colonial governance models, a setup which Al Qaeda, its precursors, and affiliated militant networks such as the Taliban have used to their advantage in this region for three decades.

Given the difficulties of tracking and targeting terrorists in the FATA’s inhospitable environs, the United States has increasingly opted to employ remotely directed unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs; the most famous and widely used is the MQ-1 Predator and its family of variants. Originally developed for a surveillance and reconnaissance role, the Predator’s payload of surface-to-air Hellfire missiles also makes it a potent vehicle for remotely directed guided missile strikes.

Counterterrorism officials had long sought this capability, among them Richard Clarke, a top counterterrorism official in the Clinton administration, who relied on far-less-direct cruise missiles in his efforts to target Osama Bin Laden. Armed Predator flights were first introduced in Afghanistan in 2001, and after several years their use was subsequently expanded across the border to target Al Qaeda in its base in Pakistan.

Strike impacts

As of March 2009, at least 45 covert strikes are reported to have taken place in Pakistan. These attacks have primarily been concentrated in the areas of North and South Waziristan, and have only once occurred outside of the FATA. Additionally, at least one ground raid by U.S. Special Forces is reported to have taken place in September 2008, a marked escalation in approach that appears to have been at least temporarily shelved in the face of strong Pakistani opposition.

The covert nature and the remoteness and inhospitability of the FATA to outside reporting make it difficult to analyze the effects of the strikes. Casualty figures may be exaggerated, erroneous, or simply unavailable; many of the small, remote camps and villages at which the strikes were reported to have occurred are not identified on publicly available maps of the region. A Center for American Progress analysis of available open-source reporting found that between 402 and 543 people may have been killed in these strikes. While many of these are alleged to have been Taliban or Al Qaeda-linked militants, accurately evaluating the status of all those killed is not possible.

Analysis of the strikes’ targets suggests that, at a tactical level, the strikes have been successful in eliminating several senior Al Qaeda operatives tasked with organizing attacks in Pakistan and the West. At least 12 of those reported killed have subsequently been identified as top Al Qaeda figures, including:

  • Abu Khabab al Masri – chief of the terror organization’s weapons of mass destruction program
  • Usama al-Kini – reportedly involved in the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole and said to have been responsible for Al Qaeda operations in Pakistan at the time of their deaths
  • Khalid Habib – chief of external operations against Western targets
  • Abu Laith al-Libi – senior Al Qaeda spokesman and Libyan Islamic Fighting Group commander
  • Rashid Rauf – a fugitive from Pakistani custody since 2007, and believed to be involved in the 2006 U.K.-based transatlantic planes bombing plot.

While many of the Al Qaeda operatives killed have subsequently been replaced, the loss of top talent and the pressure placed on the organization’s ability to operate freely does appear to have had a real impact on its effectiveness.


Public opposition to the missile strikes in Pakistan is high. While many Pakistanis disapprove of Al Qaeda’s actions and perceive their country to be under threat from terrorism, they do not support the U.S. response. Recent Gallup polling reported that 48 percent of Pakistanis do not believe missile strikes are effective at eliminating Taliban militants from their country, although 47 percent expressed no opinion. Nearly a third of Pakistanis said cooperation with America in global counterterrorism operations has principally benefited the United States, with only 9 percent saying it had either benefited Pakistan most or the two countries equally. Top Pakistani public officials have repeatedly criticized the strikes as an infringement on the country’s sovereignty, describing them as “counterproductive” and calling for their halt. Press accounts in Pakistan frequently focus on civilian casualties reportedly inflicted in the strikes.

Privately, U.S. and Pakistani intelligence agencies may in fact be cooperating, as Pakistani leaders are said to have acknowledged the program’s effectiveness at eliminating Al Qaeda senior leadership, and increased intelligence-sharing has improved the strikes’ accuracy. Protests are "really for the sake of public opinion," one Pakistani official told the Wall Street Journal. "These operations are helping both sides. We are partners on this."

Comments by a senior U.S. lawmaker and investigative media reporting have suggested that the Predator drones may in fact be operating out of a Pakistani airbase in Shamsi, Balochistan Province, rather than from across the border in Afghanistan as had been generally assumed. Pakistan has also sought access to Predator drones of its own, and to expand the focus of the attacks to include militant leaders—like Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (Pakistani Taliban Movement)—who primarily target the Pakistani state.

Benefits and risks of the Predator strikes

In keeping with long-standing practice, the U.S. intelligence community has never officially acknowledged a role in these strikes, but representatives maintain that the program has shown effectiveness. Presenting the community’s Annual Threat Assessment in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Director of National Intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair credited a “succession of blows” against Al Qaeda’s senior command structure for their “potential to further degrade its organizational cohesion and diminish the threat it poses.” CIA director Leon Panetta told reporters in late February 2009 that “operational efforts” in Pakistan “are probably the most effective weapon we have to try and disrupt Al Qaeda right now.”

While these strikes may bear some meaningful short- and medium-term successes, as a long-term strategy their value is less clear. Research from the RAND Corporation into the case histories of 648 terrorist organizations that carried out attacks between 1968 and 2006 found that only 7 percent were successfully eliminated through direct military force. This is in contrast to 43 percent who dropped their violent activities after some form of political accommodation and 40 percent who were broken up successfully through some combination of local policing, infiltration, and prosecution.

Continuing the strikes, ideally with Pakistani intelligence cooperation, could potentially disrupt Al Qaeda capabilities to carry out transnational terror attacks. But Osama bin Laden’s terror movement has thus far proven resilient and able to adapt to these pressures. Pakistani intelligence officials have expressed fears that, in the face of punishing Predator strikes, Al Qaeda operations will diffuse “to conduct decentralized operations under small but well-organized regional groups” that target the Pakistani state and neighboring Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s stability is precarious. Tensions with neighboring India are still high following the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai. The barring of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif from holding office has set off a fresh round of political turmoil. The country’s economic crisis persists. And militant groups linked to Al Qaeda and the Taliban have successfully carved out “mini-states” in the FATA and parts of the Swat district in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province.

Pakistani leaders’ stated opposition to the strikes, coupled with behind-the-scenes reports of their cooperation, weaken the legitimacy of the civilian government, and undermine its ability to make a case to the Pakistani public about the threat posed to the country by Al Qaeda terrorists and their local militant sympathizers and the real need for a response. While national security policy should not be constructed solely to win favorable opinion polling from foreign publics, the inflammatory nature of the strikes has real costs for the U.S.-Pakistani partnership.

As the administration focuses more attention and resources on Pakistan and Afghanistan as central national security concerns for the United States, all indications are that the covert missile strike program will continue, and it will remain a contentious issue. Preventing Al Qaeda terrorists from carrying out large-scale attacks on the United States and its allies must remain a critical priority for the Obama administration, and the use of precision strike capability is still a powerful potential asset for the United States.

The administration must use caution as it proceeds, however, to avoid allowing these existing capabilities to fill in for a more comprehensive strategy. The Center for American Progress’s recent report "Partnership for Progress: Advancing a New Strategy for Prosperity and Stability in Pakistan and the Region" offers more recommendations to the new administration for how it can begin to address the larger challenges facing Pakistan. Inaugurating a long-term and proactive approach to the threat of Al Qaeda and Pakistani instability will ultimately produce far greater security and stability for Pakistan, its neighbors, and the United States.

See also: Interactive Map: U.S. Airstrikes in Pakistan on the Rise

Read also: Partnership for Progress

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Colin Cookman

Policy Analyst