What a century of aerial bombardment in Waziristan tells us about the CIA’s decade-old drone programme

IN JUNE 2004, Nek Mohammad was eating dinner with four others, including two boys, in the courtyard of a family home in south Waziristan, when a Hellfire missile plunged from the air and killed them all, leaving a six-by-six-foot crater in the centre of the compound. A former Taliban fighter, Mohammad was wanted by the Pakistan Army. The attack that killed him is now regarded as the very first US Central Intelligence Agency drone strike in Pakistan.

This June, therefore, marked a decade of the CIA’s drone programme in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the borderland between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The ghastly anniversary coincided with Operation Zarb-e-Azb, a major military offensive against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Waziristan, which has seen more drone strikes than any other area in the region. The CIA’s unmanned planes and the Pakistan Air Force are important parts of the ongoing operation, which was launched in response to an 8 June militant attack on Karachi airport. The assault has driven more than 450,000 people from their homes, in blistering summer heat.

Despite the mass displacements and mounting casualties—roughly three thousand people have reportedly died in an estimated 390 CIA strikes in Pakistan—there is no end to the drone programme in sight. Critical but largely unpublicised debates are underway about how to count the members of the dead—as civilians, militants or simply the unknown. (A decade later, we still don’t know whether those killed with Nek Mohammad were only found guilty by association.) These issues are by no means new. Aerial bombardment has been taking place in Waziristan for nearly a century. For just as long, the technologies with which bombing is conducted and the terms in which it is understood have kept such warfare, and its consequences, largely free from public scrutiny.

Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar is an associate professor of history at Brown University, and a faculty fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies.

Keywords: united states Pakistan British raj CIA imperialism Waziristan Geneva Conventions drones