The bomber, a Jordanian doctor linked to al Qaeda, detonated his explosives on December 30, 2009, at an American base in Khost in eastern Afghanistan, killing himself and seven CIA officers and contractors who were operating at the heart of the covert program overseeing U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan’s volatile northwestern tribal regions. The suicide attack was a double cross: Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, the bomber, had earlier provided information to the CIA that was used in targeting some of those drone attacks.
Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the current number three in al Qaeda, praised the suicide attack, saying it was “to avenge our good martyrs” and listing several militant leaders felled by drone strikes. The chief of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud, appeared alongside al-Balawi in a prerecorded video released on January 9, 2010, saying the attack was revenge for the drone strike that killed Mehsud’s ruthless predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, in August 2009.
The drone program had a busy year in 2009; under the Obama administration, there were 51 reported strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas, compared with 45 during the entire administration of George W. Bush. Besides Baitullah Mehsud, those killed by Predator drone missiles included Saleh al-Somali, al Qaeda’s external operations chief and the link between the militant group’s central leadership and its affiliates abroad, in December, and a prominent leader of the Islamic Jihad of Uzbekistan, in September. All told, as many as 10 militant leaders fell to the drones in 2009, in addition to hundreds of lower-level militants and civilians.
The killing of civilians in drone attacks is an important and politically charged issue in Pakistan. The strikes are quite unpopular among Pakistanis, who view them as violations of national sovereignty; according to a Gallup poll from August 2009, only 9 percent approved of such attacks. Statistics compiled by Pakistani authorities in early January 2010 indicated that more than 700 civilians were killed by the drones in 2009 alone.
At the other end of the spectrum, an anonymous U.S. government official told the New York Times in early December that “just over 20” civilians and “more than 400” fighters had been killed in less than two years.
Other commentators have suggested that the civilian death rate from the drone attacks in Pakistan is 98 percent, while one study claims it is only 10 percent. Trying to ascertain the real civilian death rate from the drone strikes is important both as a moral matter and as a matter of international law, which prohibits indiscriminate attacks against civilians.
Compounding the issue is that the civilians who die in these strikes are the citizens of a U.S. ally, and just as it has become a core doctrine of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan that civilians must be protected, so too it should be across the border in Pakistan.
A better understanding of the real costs and benefits of the drone strikes in Pakistan might also make the program less controversial there. The lower the civilian casualty rate in such strikes, the more likely the Pakistani public will balance their effects with the fact that the militants targeted in these strikes have themselves masterminded or carried out operations in which more than a thousand Pakistani civilians have died in the last year alone.