Estimates of the number killed since the first recorded strike in 2004 range from 1,300 to 2,000. As many as 850 have been killed this year, according to the New America Foundation.
Through the drone campaign, Washington has honed its tools and craft of remote assassination, killing scores of leaders of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other groups waging war against U.S.-led forces. Among those killed are also hundreds of herders, farmers, and other civilians, including women and children.
The drone strikes have been conducted in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of northwest Pakistan, a remote area ruled with an iron fist where residents lack the most elementary rights and legal protections and the media is often restricted.
The area serves as a major base for Taliban and other armed Islamist groups, which were propped up by the Pakistani rulers to bolster Islamabads influence in Afghanistan and the broader region, as well as to counter movements of national minorities within Pakistan.
Kareem Khan, a journalist from the tribal agency of North Waziristan, has threatened to sue U.S. military and CIA officials for a Dec. 31, 2009, drone strike that killed his 18-year-old son, his brother, and a mason who was staying in his house. News reports at the time claimed that three militants or extremists were killed.
With his lawyer at his side, Khan announced at a press conference in Islamabad November 29 that he would file suit in Pakistani court unless he received compensation from Washington. We are not terrorists, we are common citizens, he said.
The Pakistani government is publicly critical of the unpopular U.S. strikes, often demanding the drones be put under Pakistani control. But the drones reportedly operate from bases in both Afghanistan and Pakistan with the aid of Pakistani intelligence.
Under tacit agreement with Islamabad, the U.S. drones are confined to parts of the tribal areas. But Washington has renewed pressure to expand the strikes to include an area around Quetta, the provincial capital of Baluchistan where U.S. officials contend the top leadership council of the Afghan Taliban is based.
The Pakistani government has rejected the request to expand the drone strikes. Quetta is a major city of 900,000 and home to many Afghan refugees. Civilian casualties and destruction could be considerable and within easier reach of the media.
The province of Baluchistan is also home to the Baluchi people, an oppressed minority in Pakistan and Iran fighting for national rights. The Pakistani government has promised to address Baluchi grievances in an effort to stabilize the area and bring an end to decades of guerrilla war. Washingtons short-term goals should not be our long-term pain, a Pakistani military official recently told the Washington Post, explaining opposition to expanding the strikes.
The Pakistani government has, however, agreed to increased CIA presence in Quetta, where covert missions are conducted jointly with Pakistani military intelligence almost on a daily basis, Pakistans top intelligence official told the Washington Post. Pakistani foreign ministry spokesman Abdul Basit denied the CIA expansion in Quetta.
The Pakistani military is currently conducting operations against antigovernment Taliban groups in five out of seven tribal agencies and the Swat Valleyoperations that have resulted in untold civilians casualties and displacement of hundreds of thousands over the last couple years.
During a strategic dialog in Pakistan in October in which Washington pledged $2 billion in military aid, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Pakistans top military commander had committed to open an additional front in North Waziristan. But Pakistani officials currently maintain they will not launch any operations there until other areas are stabilized, which they say will take at least four to six months.
Meanwhile, reports of incursions into Pakistan by U.S.-NATO helicopters based in Afghanistan are becoming more frequent. Gunships opened fire November 26 in a village a few miles into North Waziristan wounding at least three people, according to Pakistani news sources.
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