The wilds of Waziristan, the tribal belt along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, make an unlikely showcase for the future of warfare. This is a land stuck in the past: there are few roads, electricity is scarce, and entire communities of ethnic Pashtun tribesmen live as they have for millenniums. And yet it is over this medieval landscape that the U.S. has deployed some of the most sophisticated killing machines ever created, against an enemy that has survived or evaded all other weaponry. If al-Qaeda and the Taliban could not be eliminated by tanks, gunships and missiles, then perhaps they can be stamped out by CIA-operated unmanned drone aircraft, the Predator and the Reaper.
That was the bet President George W. Bush placed during his final months in office, when the CIA greatly increased drone sorties and strikes in Pakistan. The accelerated attacks have been stepped up under President Barack Obama. Nowadays, the low hum of the drones has become a familiar sound in Waziristan, where tribesmen call them machay, or red bees. Their lethal sting has been felt in villages and hamlets across the Federally Administered Tribal Area . The main objectives of the campaign: to take out al-Qaeda’s top tier of leadership, including Osama bin Laden, and deny sanctuary in FATA for the Taliban and those fighters who routinely slip across the border to attack U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Combining high-tech video surveillance with the ability to deliver deadly fire, drones allow joystick-wielding operators on the far side of the world–Creech Air Force Base, near Las Vegas–to track moving targets in real time and destroy them. All this, without spilling American blood and for a small fraction of the cost of conventional battle. But is the drone war winnable The White House routinely dodges questions on the subject, and neither the CIA nor the State Department would talk about the program on the record. But officials familiar with the CIA’s operations say at least nine of the top 20 high-value al-Qaeda targets identified last fall have been killed by drone strikes, along with dozens of lesser figures. Many bases and safe houses have been destroyed. On the other hand, Pakistani officials say the majority of strikes have either missed their targets or, worse, killed innocent civilians. The News, a Pakistani daily, reported recently that 60 strikes since early 2006 had killed 687 civilians and only 14 al-Qaeda leaders, a ratio few Pakistanis would find acceptable. The campaign, in fact, may be contributing to a swelling of anti-American sentiment in Pakistan and weakening the fragile government of President Asif Ali Zardari.