Eventually, the disclosures prompted a response: In March of last year, Pakistani Maj. Gen. Ghayur Mehmood, the commander in North Waziristan, appeared before reporters in Miram Shah and told them, "Myths and rumors about U.S. Predator strikes and the casualty figures are many, but it's a reality that many of those being killed in these strikes are hard-core elements, a sizable number of them foreigners. Yes, there are a few civilian casualties in such precision strikes, but a majority of those eliminated are terrorists, including foreign terrorist elements." It was an unusually candid public statement on the drone strikes from a high-ranking Pakistani official. Mehmood also provided something else that had until then been missing: official numbers. According to the government's figures, he said, 164 drone strikes had taken place since 2007, killing 964 terrorists: 793 locals and 171 foreigners. The dead included Arabs, Chechens, Filipinos, Moroccans, Tajiks, and Uzbeks. The figures also confirmed the dramatic escalation of the drone war. In 2007, the government said, a single drone strike had killed a single militant. In 2010, the strikes had killed 423.
Some such admission was probably inevitable; the revelations in the WikiLeaks cables and Pakistan's obvious inability to stop the attacks put the government in a position where it had to say something. Arguing that the drones were killing real terrorists was the best option available (though a military spokesman still tried to distance the Army from Mehmood's statements, saying they reflected only the general's opinion).
But it was also an acknowledgment of defeat: The secret war has become a lot less secret. At first, the tribal areas of Pakistan had seemed to present the perfect testing ground for a remote-controlled military strategy; it is a land set apart from its own country and mostly inaccessible to the international media and human rights groups, a place where violations of international law and civilian casualties go mostly uninvestigated. It is, in short, a black hole. But even as the Obama administration was increasingly embracing the drones as an alternative to the boots-on-the-ground military actions it inherited from its predecessor, its secret war was becoming as much a political liability as a precision weapon.
As the strikes have continued, they have given rise to a narrative that explains away the country's worsening radicalization and extremist violence as a product of the drones -- a narrative that has served as a bargaining chip for Pakistani leaders in their dealings with the United States as they once again raise the price of Pakistan's cooperation in the war. (After a November 2011 incident in Mohmand district in which NATO forces mistakenly killed Pakistani soldiers, the first thing Pakistan demanded was the evacuation of the Shamsi air base in Baluchistan province, which had been used by the Americans for launching drones over the tribal areas; pictures of the emptied base immediately flashed across the Pakistani media.) In reality, the country's worsening anti-Americanism is driven more by the portrayal of the drones in the Pakistani media, which paints them as a scourge targeting innocent civilians, than by the drones themselves. Few Pakistanis have actually visited the tribal areas or even know much about them. Until the United States and Pakistan come clean about the program, though, it is an image that will persist, worsening the frictions within Pakistan's already divided society and between the United States and Pakistan.
That's too bad, because in reality Pakistanis are deeply torn about the drones. For every anti-American rant they inspire-the recent meteoric rise of Imran Khan, the cricketer turned politician, owes a great deal to his strong opposition to the drone strikes -- there is also a recognition that these strikes from the sky have their purpose. At times, they have outright benefited the Pakistani state, as in the summer of 2009, when a drone attack killed Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of a militant alliance in Waziristan who was suspected of masterminding former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's 2007 assassination -- Pakistan's Enemy No. 1, but a villain of less consequence to the United States.
Residents of the tribal areas are similarly conflicted. Many favor the drone strikes over the alternatives, such as military operations or less selective bombardments by Pakistani bombers and helicopter gunships. Better a few houses get vaporized than an entire village turned into refugees. Even the brother of the elder I brought to the Peshawar guesthouse said as much, allowing that "in our case, it might be faulty intelligence or mischief by someone" that had caused the strike that killed his brother. Regardless, he said, "I would always go for the drones."
Either way, they are now a fact of life in a secret war that is far from over. Once I called a source -- a Taliban commander in one of the tribal areas. His brother picked up the phone and told me that the commander was asleep. It was noon, and I remarked that it was an odd time for a nap. "There are drones in the sky," the brother laughingly replied, "so he is not feeling well."