US drone attack kills 18 in restive North Waziristan, despite Pakistan protests

US missiles killed 18 suspected militants near the Afghan border, just a day after the Pakistan government summoned a US diplomat to protest the use of drone attacks.

Ishtiaq Mahsud/AP
In this Aug. 5 photo, a Pakistani Taliban militant holds a rocket-propelled grenade at the Taliban stronghold of Shawal, in Pakistani tribal region of Waziristan along the Afghanistan border. US missiles killed 18 suspected militants in Pakistan along the Afghan border today, just one day after Pakistani authorities met with a United States diplomat to protest drone strikes in the country.

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American missiles targeting suspected militants in Pakistan along the Afghan border killed 18 today, just one day after Pakistani authorities met with a United States diplomat to protest drone strikes in the country.

The US drone campaign has been a serious contributor of tension between the US and Pakistan, and today’s attacks were the fourth in one week, reports the Associated Press. All of this week’s attacks took place in North Waziristan, an especially restive area where the Pakistani military has yet to conduct any operations against militants.

Pakistan sees the use of drones as a violation of their sovereignty, but the US argues that drones are vital in combatting militants, including members of Al Qaeda and Taliban, active along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The drone strikes are unpopular in Pakistan for other reasons as well – many believe they kill mostly civilians, something the US disputes.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry said yesterday that an unnamed American diplomat was told that drone strikes are “unlawful, against international law, and a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty,” adding that the attacks are “unacceptable.” Pakistan has long been a vocal opponent of the drone strikes.

In 2010 the US conducted 117 drone strikes in Pakistan's border region, according to the Long War Journal. In 2011, that number dropped to 64, and there have been an estimated 33 so far this year, including today’s.

According to AP, despite the Pakistani government's public opposition to the drones, it has surreptitiously backed their use.

The [Pakistani] government is widely believed to have supported the attacks quietly in the past. That cooperation has come under pressure as the relationship between the two countries has deteriorated.

“This is a product of sleeping with the enemy,” wrote a reader in a comment on a story in the Pakistani newspaper The Express Tribune on a drone strike earlier this week.

The debate over the use of drones is heated in the US as well. In an International Herald Tribune blog post this week, Mark McDonald explores whether drones are worth their cost – not just militarily, but socially and politically as well.

Drones are seen as more efficient than sending in US troops, Mr. McDonald notes:

Conventional wisdom seems to suggest that drones are a useful and effective way of combating the likes of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, especially in remote terrain and difficult warscapes. Get in, gather the intel, launch a surgical strike, get out, no troops lost.

“Any time you can use a drone instead of using a Marine, I think it’s a good thing,” said Stephen A. Cheney, a retired Marine general who is CEO of the American Security Project, a research group in Washington.

“Policymakers like drones because they are considered an efficient, effective way to gather intelligence and target suspected terrorists,” said a fact sheet recently published by the security project.

Drones also can be deployed (or reassigned) quickly. Their missiles are relatively precise. They are seen as better data collectors than ground-based sources. And they don’t get tired.

But despite all the potential “pluses” to implementing drone strikes, there are many costs, McDonald points out. Targeted killing can have large social and political costs in the country where they take place, and some question whether the potential negatives are worth the security achieved.

Are drone strikes legally and morally defensible? There has recently been some reporting that suggests drone pilots are now carrying out “double-tap” attacks, firing on people who arrive to help the wounded from an initial strike, or to carry away the dead, or to salvage vehicles and equipment.

And what of the collateral damage at home? Even thought they fly their drones remotely, nearly half of all Reaper, Predator and Global Hawk operators report “high operational stress,” as my colleague Elisabeth Bumiller has reported.

Another issue concerns targeting. Is the intelligence on the ground reliable? Men with weapons “acting suspiciously” – is this reason enough to fire at them?

“What did the person do that made them drone-worthy?” says Christine Fair, a South Asia scholar and professor at Georgetown University

And what about compensation for collateral damage and civilians being killed in drone strikes? Merely establishing that real, identifiable innocents have been killed can be problematic, especially in the tribal areas where physical access is difficult and census records are unreliable.

“If we kill someone innocent, there should be compensation,” says Ms. Fair. “We do it in Afghanistan.”

Pakistani intelligence said today’s drone-fired missiles hit three suspected militant hideouts, and that each of the compounds were hit by two missiles. These hideouts are frequently used by militants crossing into Afghanistan, reports AP. An additional 14 people were injured in the attacks.

Pakistan’s Foreign Office Spokesman Muazzam Khan said today that it has been in contact with the US over the use of drones and that they are reviewing different options, according to Pakistan’s News International. 

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