Several leaks of secret documents in the last year have made it clear that the Pakistani government was trying to have it both ways with regard to the American use of UAVs to hunt down and kill Islamic terrorists in the tribal territories. Officially the government (along with many politicians and journalists) condemn this violation of Pakistani sovereignty and murder of innocent Pakistanis. The classified documents and communications tell another story, that the Pakistani politicians are all for this effective and selective campaign against terrorists. Now there’s another deception in play, a report by a UN official that the UAV attacks have secretly killed thousands of civilians. What does not get reported much is how this is part of a deliberate and often quite successful media deception campaign. This is all because of a successful terror campaign against Pakistani journalists and exploitation of the culture of corruption in Pakistan.
The Pakistani Taliban often issue public warnings to journalists who publish material critical of the Taliban. Those who do not comply will not be allowed into Taliban controlled (or influenced) territory and are killed or kidnapped if they come anyway and are detected. The Taliban also threatens to punish repeat offenders. This could include a beating, kidnapping, or death. If you really annoy the terrorists they will come after you no matter where you are in the country.
All these restrictions have long been enforced, but over the last few years, the Taliban have become more unpopular because of the growing use of terrorist violence against civilians. The Pakistani Taliban have become associated with a growing number of terror attacks and a lot of dead civilians. The “UN report” cited civilian losses that are at odds with what is actually happening in the target areas and what is known about the use of missile armed UAVs. Independent witnesses (journalists or not) who have visited the tribal territories and asked locals about the UAV campaign find most tribesmen in favor of the missile attacks. That’s because the terrorists maintain control of places like North Waziristan (where most of the UAV missile attacks occur) using terror and the Pakistani Army, when it does attack the terrorists, uses artillery and aerial bombing that causes far more civilian casualties than the missile attacks of American UAVs. Moreover, the American attacks actually kill more of the hated Islamic terrorists and frighten the terrorists a great deal. Local civilians have figured out that Americans make an effort to avoid civilian casualties while the Taliban will often try to protect themselves by forcing local civilians to act as human shields against American attacks. The local civilians hate this and try to get away whenever possible. The Americans tend to detect this and act on it, attacking when the terrorists are “unprotected”.
Meanwhile, the Taliban has been expanding its operations beyond the tribal territories and have increased its cooperation with Pushtun gangs in urban areas, particularly in the nation's largest city, Karachi. There, growing religious and political violence has left thousands dead in the past few years. The Taliban has participated in this, and journalists have been reporting on the Taliban connection. But journalists have found that reporting accurately about the Taliban can be a fatal mistake.
Journalism is a dangerous profession in Pakistan. Many powerful people act like the Taliban when they attract too much unfavorable press. But the Taliban are known to be particularly violent and uncompromising when they feel they have been wronged. The Pakistani Taliban are particularly dangerous just now because they are short of cash and cannot bribe as many journalists as they used to. Bribery is useful when dealing with journalists who are in areas the Taliban have a hard time reaching or going after reporters who are protected by other Islamic radical groups.
The Taliban are now seeking wayward journalists to make an example of, which puts additional pressure on reporters seeking to put out accurate news of what the Taliban are doing. The Taliban have already been successful in chasing most journalists out of North Waziristan, their last refuge (which the army rarely enters) in the tribal territories. The American CIA UAVs do enter North Waziristan regularly, and the Taliban believe the journalists provide target information for these missile armed UAVs, either intentionally or otherwise. One way for a journalist to earn some goodwill (or get off a hit list) with the terrorists is to jump on the anti-American bandwagon and condemn whatever the American UAVs are doing.
All this anti-American publicity means there are growing protests against the use of UAVs to hunt down and kill Islamic terrorists. Aside from the fact that these aircraft allow terrorists to be more quickly found and killed with less risk to civilians, this method is often seen as, well, dishonorable. This is an ancient quirk.
For a long time many cultures considered slingers and bowmen less honorable than men armed with swords and spears, for these guys got up close to do the killing. Slingers and bowmen slink around on the periphery, taking shots at the more honorable warriors. The ancient Romans earned the same disdain for their heavy use of large devices that could throw large rocks or bolts long distances. These were meant mainly for sieges but would be used during pitched battles as well. The enemy who lost because of such weapons considered this use of long distance weapons unmanly. This attitude continued to World War II, where the Germans considered the American heavy use of artillery to be well, less than honorable, cheating almost.
While it was the Germans who began the use of bombing cities from the air as far back as World War I, they were indignant when the U.S. and Britain did it to German cities later in World War II. But back in World War II, allied civilians, seeing German troops advancing everywhere, thought bombing German cities was a case of too much ain’t enough. Attitudes, not surprisingly, change over time. What seemed reasonable during World War II is now considered by many as reprehensible. The few surviving veterans of World War II can only remark that, “you had to be there,” and be ignored.
It’s the same with UAV tactics. Despite the greater efficiency in putting mass murderers out of action, and at less risk to innocent bystanders, the fact that the people pulling the trigger are not at any risk is for many, somehow wrong. The Taliban and other terrorists in North Waziristan just want these UAVs to go away and are willing to do whatever works to make that happen.