The sustained streak of US drone attacks in tribal areas of Pakistan is mired in deep controversy. It is considered a double edged weapon that kills wanted Al Al-Qaeda and TTP militants with precision on one hand and generates deep feelings of vengeance and hatred among the people of Pakistan in general and in the people of KP, Fata in particular, on the other. It is alleged that it has created more militants and suicide bombers than it has eliminated. The founder Chief of Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, Baitullah Mehsud once claimed that every suicide attack brought to him three four more suicide bombers. Ironically Baitullah was busted in a drone attack.

It is not the killing of militants that has spurred the debate over the morality and legality of drone program. The reasons that generate resentment and negative reaction over it are the general perception of violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and high number of collateral damage caused by drone attacks. Since 2006, drone-launched missiles have reportedly killed 2410 to 3000 persons in Pakistan. According to some estimates 25 high profile al-Qaeda commanders and more than 40 TTP militants at least were killed till October 2012. This campaign destroyed many al-Qaeda and TTP bases and safe houses. TTP Founder chief Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a drone attack in August 2009. The incumbent chief of TTP, Hakeemullah Mehsud was severely injured in drone attack in January 2012. Qari Hussain Mehsud, cousin of Hakeemullah Mehsud and known as ‘master trainer of suicide bombers’ was also killed in a drone attack.

According to an estimate, overall, 66% to 68% of the people killed by drones were militants, and 31% to 33% were civilians. But nobody knows who those civilians were. Reports on collateral damage by Stanford (Only 2% high value militants) , Bureau of Investigative Journalism, (between 282 and 535), Long War Journal (138 till mid 2011), New America Foundation (0 to 18 from 2010 till now-80% killed were militants) CIA (None), Brooking Institution (10:1), Body Count (12.4%), US Government (None since 2011) vary in their assessments over figures. It doesn’t matter much which report is accurate. In any case collateral damage is a rueful aspect of drone campaign. Death of even one innocent civilian is condemnable. This is what happens in wars.

It is a war for the US. The raison d’être and objective of the US drone campaign must be understood in this perspective. Al-Qaeda and TTP militants, based in tribal areas of Pakistan are being targeted by the drones. The targets are the hardened militants whose presence in Afghanistan had earned the US attack on Taliban ruled Afghanistan in 2001. They were considered to be responsible for carrying out attacks on the US on 9/11. The US Operation Anaconda compelled them to sneak into Pakistan and get refuge in tribal areas of Pakistan.

The US believes that these elements are planning, along with their affiliates, to launch further such attacks on the US interests. The US is bent upon annihilating them. Its genuine concern for its security has constrained it to spend huge amounts to kill its enemies on the soil of its closest ally. The hellfire missile fired by the drone costs about US$70000+$30000 overheads= $100000. So far about 256 drone attacks (about 334 missiles) have taken place in Pakistan which means about US $33,400,000 have been spent on this campaign. At times more than one missile were fired during one sortie. It ought to be kept in mind that the American people are quite finicky about the spending of their tax money.

Pakistan’s denial of granting permission to the US to carry out drone attacks and issuance of condemnatory statements after every drone killing has made this campaign look like an attack on Pakistan and its sovereignty. Out of fear of general resentment Pakistan refrains from openly explaining the situation and the rationale behind the drone campaign to its public. It is a serious point to ponder that if Pakistan was able to dismantle al-Qaeda bases in Fata, the US might not have launched expensive and highly controversial drone campaign.

The fact is that despite public outcry and politicians’ outbursts in the public, many of them consider drone attacks a good strategy that not only shattered al-Qaeda command and control in Fata but also struck effectively at the hierarchy of TTP. Lots many people in Fata express jubilation over good riddance of evil elements that have wreaked havoc in their once peaceful lives. The number of TTP leaders killed by drones is higher than those of al-Qaeda. These drones are killing the militants that have killed about 38000 Pakistanis; soldiers, policemen, intelligence personnel, women, children, students so far.

Wall Street Journal reported that “About once a month, the Central Intelligence Agency sends a fax to a general at Pakistan’s intelligence service outlining broad areas where the US intends to conduct strikes with drone aircraft, according to US officials. The Pakistanis, who in public oppose the program, don’t respond. On this basis, plus the fact that Pakistan continues to clear airspace in the targeted areas, the US government concludes it has tacit consent to conduct strikes within the borders of a sovereign nation.” The Government of Pakistan however vehemently denies complicity and keeps urging the US government to stop this program forthwith.

It is not known to many that drone attacks have been keeping the militants dispersed and disturbed. The rate of recurrence of drone attacks in Pakistan took a dip in 2011. It had dropped to 64 in 2011 as compared to 117 in 2010. But after lull in the drone attacks, it was observed that the al-Qaeda, TTP militants and other militant groups started regrouping and intensified their attacks. According to a report by New York Times the US and Pakistani officials confirmed that the two month break in drone strikes in Pakistan helped embolden al-Qaeda and several Pakistani militant factions to regroup, increase attacks on Pakistani security forces and threaten intensified strikes against allied forces in Afghanistan.

If the efficacy of drones is understood by the public, other irritants can be addressed effectively. The uproar against the drones can be dimmed if the control of drones is given to Pakistan. The collateral damage would still be there but it would not be caused by the foreign attacks perceived to be violation of our sovereignty. The ongoing battle in South Waziristan is not totally collateral damage free. Drone will be just a change in modus operandi of Pakistan forces. The workable solution is to form a committee comprising representatives of ISI, IB, CIA and High Court which would identify the targets and decide to launch the drone attack. Every strike should be well-considered. After successful attack the death of actual target should be declared officially with the list of his crimes or accusations. In case of collateral damage, all bodies should be identified and handed over to their relatives for proper burial. The relatives of innocent victims should be compensated similarly as the victims of terrorist attacks are compensated in Pakistan.

If drone attacks are stopped the terrorists may not cease to exist and operate. But if terrorists are bridled there will be no justification for drones. So some local security analysts think that the focus ought to be on elimination of terrorists to bring the drone campaign to an end. The perplexing question, however, is whether to do it through army operation in North Waziristan or through drones.

N Elahi is a security analyst. He holds master’s degree in Intelligence and International Security from War Studies Department, King’s College London, UK.