A new study by Patrick B. Johnston and Anoop Sarbahi indicates that U.S. drone strikes have caused a decline in the quantity and quality of terrorism attacks in Pakistan. The authors summarize their findings this way:
“The data analysis suggests that while over- all levels of violence in FATA remain high, drone strikes are associated with modest declines in the overall incidence of terrorist attacks and the lethality of these attacks, as well as declines in the incidence of IED and suicide attacks.”
The findings are based on an analysis of U.S. drone strikes and terrorism in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas from March 2004 to June 2010. The United States have conducted drone strikes in FATA for several years, but there was a significant increase in attacks in August 2008 when the Bush administration issued new directives for the use of drones.
Up until that point, U.S. officials had cleared strikes in advance with Pakistani officials, but those procedures were increasingly seen as hampering progress in taking out suspected militants in the area. The ousting of President Pervez Musharraf and several foiled terrorist plots in Europe also convinced U.S. officials a more direct approach was needed in FATA. Another escalation of CIA’s covert war took place in February 2009 when the U.S. decided to start drone strikes against Baitullah Mehsud’s militant network.
The data in Johnston and Sarbahi’s study (from New America’s Drones Database and National Counterterrorism Center’s Worldwide Incidents Tracking System) is stark evidence of the escalation. In 2007, there were four drone strikes in FATA. The following year, the number was 34, with most happening after the decision to loosen up procedural rules. Strikes have steadily increased since then, with 118 in 2010 alone. The effects of the strikes seem to be a reduction in terrorism. As the authors point out:
“[T]here is evidence of a positive correlation between drone strikes and militant violence; however, we interpret this as evidence that the US has increasingly turned to drone warfare as the situation in FATA has grown more dire. Once we control for local and temporal factors, the correlation becomes negative, providing some suggestive evidence that drone strikes are associated with decrease militant violence.”
The paper put out by Johnston and Sarbahi is concise and persuasive, but due to its limited scope should serve as a jumping-off point for further analysis. The study is limited to terrorism in FATA, but there have been developments outside of the area that could account for a decrease in violence.
Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP, also known as the Pakistani Taliban) has at times during the covered period refocused efforts to outside of FATA. For instance, 2009 saw an “alarming” surge in violence in Punjab province, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal. Also, TTP announced in March 2009 that it was committing more resources to the Afghan front to help out the Afghan Taliban. The impact of such developments on levels of violence in FATA should be examined in future studies.
The past two years have also seen the Pakistani military taking a more aggressive approach to militants in and around FATA. Most of the drone strikes and terrorist attacks have occurred in North and South Waziristan. While the former has not seen any significant action on the military’s part, the army launched a large operation in the latter in October 2009, with about 28,000 troops moving into the agency. In December, Prime Minister Gilani announced victory in South Waziristan and the defeat of Taliban-forces in the district. According to the Pakistani military, 589 militants and 79 soldiers were killed during the operation.
The effects of U.S. involvement in Pakistan have long been obscured by a lack of data, little transparency into the scope of drone strikes and other covert operations, and a complex threat image. Johnston and Sarbahi’s study is a good step towards achieving a coherent picture of the Pakistani front. It is hard to overstate the importance of such clarity, as actions in FATA can cause a ripple effect throughout Pakistan and its neighbors’ territories.