Subscribe to FDD

Pakistan and America’s Covert Air Campaign Against Al-Qaeda


  • Unbeknownst to many Americans, the US military is carrying out a war in Pakistan by remote control with high-tech unmanned strike aircrafts.
  • The primary targets of the air campaign include: top al-Qaeda leaders, al-Qaeda’s external operations network, allied terrorist groups operating in Pakistan’s tribal areas, the Taliban, and other jihadi fighters conducting cross border attacks in Afghanistan.
  • For example, a senior al-Qaeda leader can also aid al-Qaeda’s external operations network, and be supporting the Afghan Taliban.
  • Strikes have been limited to Pakistan’s tribal areas. Strikes in the “settled districts” are not permitted.
  • Strikes have focused on North and South Waziristan, a hub in Pakistan for al-Qaeda, Taliban, and allied groups (70 percent in North Waziristan, 25 percent in South Waziristan).
  • The first strike in this campaign took place in 2004, killing a Taliban commander in South Waziristan.
  • From 2004 to 2008, the program was primarily limited to high value targets.  In 2008, President George W. Bush expanded the program to strike at the al-Qaeda and Taliban networks, and Pakistani officials did not protest.
  • President Obama continued the program after assuming office in 2009, and expanded the scope.  The program has since increased in intensity (35 strikes in 2008, 53 strikes in 2009, 117 strikes in 2010), but has tapered off over the past two years (64 in 2011 and 46 in 2012).
  • More than a dozen top Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders, as well scores of mid-level commanders, have been killed in strikes (Baitullah Mehsud, Abu Yahya al Libi, Mustafa Abu Yazid, Abu Abdullah al Libi, Saleh al Somali, and Osama al Kini)
  • Reports of civilian casualties from strikes appear to be inflated. While some elements of the Pakistani and Western press claims only 12 al-Qaeda members and more than 2,000 civilians have been killed, our estimates put civilian casualties at about 10 percent of those killed, and the CIA’s estimate is about 5 percent.
  • Pakistan officials have publicly denounced the attacks while privately provided support for the operations. The existence of a U.S. base in Pakistan has been disclosed. The base has reportedly been closed down after the disclosure.
  • The campaign has been effective at the tactical level, but there are some serious problems associated with it.
  • First, airstrikes are a tactic. They have kept al-Qaeda off-balance. But this is not a strategy to defeat al-Qaeda. Drone strikes do not address the core issues that allow al-Qaeda to survive and, despite losses to key leaders, thrive. Those core issues are state sponsorship of terrorist groups, al-Qaeda’s ability to exploit the situation in ungoverned spaces, and its radical ideology which remains appealing to a segment of the Muslim world. 
  • Second, the challenges posed by al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan are systemic, and not limited to just two tribal agencies.  The focus on strikes in North and South Waziristan masks the problems of a wider al-Qaeda presence in Pakistan (95% of strikes in 2010 took place in North and South Waziristan). The US cannot defeat al Qaeda by merely killing off selective leaders based in a small geographic area.
  • Third, to deny Taliban/al-Qaeda havens, Pakistan must occupy ground, but is unwilling to do so.
  • Fourth, the Pakistan government’s unwillingness to own up to involvement in this campaign provides the enemy with propaganda against both the US and Pakistani government.
  • Fifth, the issue civilian casualties (both real and imagined) from drone strikes has become a contentious issue. Those opposed to the drone program have used the civilian casualties to lobby for the strikes to end.