Afghanistan: The Mystery of the Drone Attacks

Drone strikes have been on hold for almost a month—likely due to the tension between Pakistan and the U.S. over the arrest of an American official for murder. Newsweek investigates.

Pakistanis rallied against an American consular employee, Raymond Davis (inset), who is accused of killing two men in the city of Lahore. U.S. officials say he shot the two Pakistanis because they were trying to rob him. (Credit: AP Photo)

At first, Taliban militants and local civilians in the Waziristan tribal badlands along Pakistan’s Afghan border thought that bad weather was responsible for the long lull in the attacks by armed Predator drones. “For the first time in months we haven’t heard any ‘buzz-buzz’ overhead for weeks,” says a physician in the town of Mir Ali, referring to the distinctive noise that turbo-prop UAVs make when circling overhead. “We thought the reason was the low, cloudy skies.”

But drone-fired missile strikes against militant targets have now been on hiatus for almost a month—and militants and locals alike are increasingly convinced that the halt is tied to a tense diplomatic standoff between Pakistan and the U.S. over American security agent Raymond Davis.

On January 27, Davis—a former Special Forces solider, now described by the U.S. as a member of the Islamabad embassy’s “administrative and technical staff—was detained by Pakistani police after he blew away two would-be robbers with his Glock semi-automatic pistol in Lahore. The drone attacks happened to cease around the same time as the arrest. Sensing a connection, the militants are rejoicing over Davis’ incarceration: “The arrest of this guy is a very positive thing for us,” says Mullah Jihad Yar, a Pakistani Taliban commander in the area. “Our forces used to be hit by attacks every other day. Now we can move more freely.”

There have been previous pauses in Predator strikes before—Bill Roggio’s authoritative log at shows two shutdowns in 2009 (of 33 and 28 days in length) and two in 2010 (of 19 and 15 days in length). In those instances, bad weather was indeed cited as the cause. But this time, the Waziri residents seem to have guessed right. Newsweek has confirmed that it’s no coincidence the ramped-up attacks ended abruptly with Davis’ arrest. A senior Pakistani official has confirmed that Davis’ case is directly connected to the freezing of the attacks, and says that Washington is afraid of further inflaming anti-American sentiment in Pakistan in the wake of the shootings. The U.S. insists that Davis fired in self-defense at the men—who reportedly flashed guns at him as they drove by on a motorcycle—and that he enjoys full diplomatic immunity. Embassy officials are pressing for him to be released immediately into American custody. The Pakistani police, meanwhile, are considering possible murder charges. This week, the Lahore court gave Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari’s beleaguered government three more weeks to decide whether Davis, who remains in jail, is indeed entitled to full diplomatic protection.

Newsweek has confirmed that it’s no coincidence the ramped-up attacks ended abruptly with Davis’ arrest

The case couldn’t be more politically sensitive for Zardari and his government, who have been steadfast allies of the U.S. in the war against Islamic extremism. Most Pakistanis are incensed by the killings and see Davis and his shoot-from-the-hip actions—just as they see the drone strikes—as a blatant symbol of U.S. arrogance and its disregard for Pakistani laws and sovereignty. Both American and Pakistani officials fear that while the case is negotiated behind the scenes, any further drone attacks could set off destabilizing street protests. “Ninety-nine percent of Pakistanis believe he’s a killer,” says a Pakistani intelligence official who declined to be named, as he is not authorized to speak to the press. “So we conveyed the message to the U.S. to stop the attacks, in order not to make a bad situation worse.”

Many Pakistanis also question why Davis, who was dressed in jeans and a checkered shirt on the night of the arrest, was driving through Lahore with a loaded pistol, extra magazines and ammunition, a GPS device, several cell phones and a telescope. The U.S. government also has its own questions about what Davis and other shadowy Americans are up to in Pakistan. According to the senior Pakistani official, the U.S. government has only a sketchy notion of what Davis and other security contractors and intelligence agents are actually doing on the ground. As a result, the CIA’s activities in Pakistan have more or less been temporarily shut down, according to the official, while a review of the agency’s activities is carried out. Hence the temporary drone freeze, since the drone program is under the direction of the CIA.

Over the past year, U.S. President Barack Obama dramatically escalated the drone strikes, more than doubling them from 45 attacks inside Pakistan’s tribal area in 2009 to some 118 last year. In the first three weeks of 2011, the CIA flew nine drone attack missions, with the final three being nearly simultaneous attacks on targets in Warizistan on January 22 in which at least 13 suspected Taliban fighters were killed. But until the Davis case is resolved, which could take a month or longer, the Taliban and al Qaeda may have the unexpected luxury of not worrying about sudden death raining down on them from the skies.

With John Barry in Washington.

Ron Moreau is Newsweek's Afghanistan and Pakistan correspondent and has been covering the region for the magazine the past 10 years. Since he first joined Newsweek during the Vietnam War, he has reported extensively from Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.