Putting Islamabad in a Tight Spot: How the CIA Uses Pakistan as a Launch Pad for Drones

By in Islamabad

Pakistan may be the epicenter of the CIA's drone war against the Taliban, but there is massive resistance to the campaign from the Pakistani population. The US is forcing Islamabad to perform a difficult balancing act.

Pakistani tribesmen examine the site of a missile attack by a US drone in the village of Janikhel just outside North Waziristan in March 2009. Zoom
DPA

Pakistani tribesmen examine the site of a missile attack by a US drone in the village of Janikhel just outside North Waziristan in March 2009.

As so often, the sky is a radiant blue over Mir Ali, a small Pakistani town in the province of North Waziristan near the border with Afghanistan. Alerted by a buzzing sound, a few people come out of their houses. Spotting a small aircraft a few hundred meters away, they panic, and those who can flee into the next village. The craft is a Predator drone, an unmanned plane launched from a secret airbase in Pakistan and controlled remotely by the CIA in Virginia back in the US. "We panic because we live in constant fear of being hit by a rocket," says Haji Gul, one of the inhabitants of Mir Ali.

Almost every day now, Pakistani television shows footage of houses destroyed and villages devastated by drone attacks. One such attack in mid-January killed three people in Mir Ali, all of them allegedly members of an extremist militia.

However the rockets fired by these remote-controlled mini-planes do not only kill terrorists. Drone strikes have an indirect -- and sometimes also direct -- impact on everyone who lives in the affected regions along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Some of the locals are worried, others are angry. They fear for their lives now that the CIA's drone war is taking on ever greater dimensions and using Pakistan as a launch pad.

For it is here, in hidden airfields in Pakistan, that the drones are primed and launched. And it is mainly here that they carry out attacks, especially in North and South Waziristan, two regions that border Afghanistan and which are a stronghold of an unknown number of militant groups.

Controversial Campaign

Despite its success against the Pakistani Taliban, the use of drones by the Americans remains controversial in Pakistan. According to a Gallup poll, only 9 percent of Pakistanis are in favor of them. Two-thirds reject them outright.

There are several reasons for this. People living along the border with Afghanistan, for example, regularly complain that the rockets also kill civilians who have nothing to do with the insurgents. What's more, the Pakistani government feels the US has put it in a tight spot. Islamabad doesn't like foreign military activity on its territory -- at least officially. It claims America's actions constitute a violation of Pakistani sovereignty.

In a November 2009 interview with SPIEGEL, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani went so far as to describe the drone attacks as "counterproductive." "The political and the military leadership have been very successful in isolating the militants from the local tribes. But once there is a drone attack in their home region, they get united again," he said. "This is a dangerous trend, and it is my concern and the concern of the army. It is also counterproductive in the sense that it is creating a lot of anti-American sentiment all over the country."

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Nevertheless it's an open secret that the Pakistani government actively supports the Americans and their activities. It is more or less certain that the Pakistani intelligence service the ISI supplies the Americans with intelligence about the whereabouts of terrorists. Unofficially it is said that the CIA is unfamiliar with the complicated mountainous regions of western Pakistan and is therefore dependent on third-party assistance. There is talk of an agreement between the two countries according to which Pakistan does not forbid the Americans from using drones, but in return is allowed to criticize its ally in order to save face.

Popular Support Vital

However the drone strikes have also meant that the Pakistani government itself has become the target of criticism from the population. Conservative and traditionally anti-American circles are not alone in demanding to be told why Islamabad permits the CIA to use Pakistan as the launch pad for Predator drones.

Prime Minister Gilani comments that popular support is vital if the insurgents are to be defeated. "But we do not get that if there is American interference, which we do not ask for," he says

The Pakistani people are particularly incensed by reports in the international press that the American security firm Blackwater, which now calls itself Xe, has stationed people in Pakistan. The suggestion is that the CIA has commissioned the American contractor to prime the drones on its behalf. In the past Blackwater personnel have made an unsavory name for themselves through, among other things, the killing of Iraqi civilians and sex games in Afghanistan. In December 2009 the New York Times reported that cooperation in Pakistan between the CIA and the company would be halted because of the massive indignation it had provoked.

Demanding Technology

Ideally the Pakistani government and its army would like to carry out the drone attacks themselves. They are therefore demanding that the US provide them with the relevant technology. But Washington rejects this idea. Although the US supplies Pakistan with attack helicopters, planes and -- according to the New York Times -- unarmed Shadow drones, the CIA wants to keep control over the use of armed drones. There are also fears that Pakistan could use the technology against targets other than the Taliban in the west of the country -- for instance against India.

At the same time it is not clear whether the Americans are themselves complying with international agreements. Following an attack on a religious school in North Waziristan in mid-January, United Nations investigator Philip Alston called on the US government to spell out precisely who it is targeting and how many people the drone attacks are killing. "The whole program is so secretive that we have very little information to evaluate whether the United States is honoring its obligations under the Geneva convention," Alston said.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt

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The Most Important Drone Models
MQ-1 Predator
The MQ-1 Predator was the first drone put into operation. It was introduced in 1995 by the US Air Force.

Manufacturer: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems
Unit Price: About $4.5 million
Armament: Two air-to-surface AGM-114 Hellfire missiles
Dimensions: 8.23 meters long, 14.84-meter wingspan
Range: 3,704 kilometers
Maximum altitude: 7,620 meters
Control: Remotely controlled by a pilot
MQ-9 Reaper
The MQ-9 Reaper (formerly Predator B) is based on the same technology as the MQ-1 Predator. However, it can carry 10 times more weaponry than its predecessor. It is used by the US Navy and Air Force.

Manufacturer: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems
Unit price: $10.5 million
Armament: Up to 1,351 kg (e.g. AGM-114 Hellfire and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles or the GBU-12 Paveway II and GBU-38 DAM bombs)
Dimensions: 10.97 meters long, 20.12-meter wingspan
Range: 5,926 kilometers
Maximum Altitude: 15,400 meters
Control: Remotely controlled by a pilot
RQ-7 Shadow 200
The RQ-7 Shadow 200 is used by the US Army and US Marine Corps for reconnaissance. It has been in operation since 2003 and is not capable of flying attack missions.

Manufacturer: AAI Corporation
Unit Price: $275,000
Armament: none
Size: 3.4 meters long, 3.9-meter wingspan
Range: 125 kilometers
Maximum altitude: 4,600 meters
Control: Autonomous, with GPS
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