Attitudes towards UAVs using laser-guided missiles against Islamic terrorists often overlooks the fact that most of the civilians living in areas where their airstrikes take place consider the attacks beneficial and not a threat to the local population. The UAV fired missiles are seen by the locals as “Justice-Delivering Technology”, not a menace to civilians. Western leaders and media have long misunderstood the use of precision airstrikes using UAVs armed with Hellfire laser-guided missiles and its impact on local civilians. Now that American troops are gone from Afghanistan, there is a lot of open support for continued American UAVs armed with laser-guided missiles killing local Islamic terrorist leaders. The Islamic terrorists are a major threat to the locals, who are often bullied, extorted and generally abused by the Islamic terrorists. Their only salvation is continued American airstrikes.
For a long time, Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban leaders were really, really eager to halt the American UAV campaign against them. These attacks were popular with local civilians but over a decade ago the Islamic radicals began running a propaganda campaign that claimed most of the casualties were innocent civilians. They pushed fabricated civilian casualty statistics that could not be checked, much less documented, as well as insisting that many more missiles had been fired, missed their targets and killed civilians instead. They also claimed that each missile killed civilians and that less than ten percent of the missiles actually hit Taliban or terrorists. While both of these claims are unlikely based on known performance of Hellfires, there is no way to verify the Taliban claims.
Many Pakistanis will believe this stuff, as will the American media and many foreigners, simply on ideological grounds. Some Pakistani politicians have demanded that the government do something to halt these attacks, which many Pakistanis see as a violation of their sovereignty. But the last thing the Pakistani government wants is a halt to these UAV operations. That's because the missiles kill many terrorists who have killed, or are planning to kill, Pakistani politicians. It's an open secret that the government even allowed the UAVs to operate from Pakistani air bases.
Since this "decapitation" (killing key terrorists) program began in 2008, over a thousand terrorists, including several dozen senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, and over a hundred mid-level ones, have died from the UAV missile attacks. There have actually been few civilian deaths, as the UAVs stalk their targets and seek to catch them while traveling or otherwise away from civilians. Journalists visiting the sites of these attacks later find few locals claiming a lot of civilian casualties and even less evidence.
While the terrorist groups are concerned about the losses, especially among the leadership, what alarms them the most is how frequently the American UAVs are finding their key people. The real problem the terrorists have is that someone is ratting them out. Someone, or something, is helping the Americans find the terrorist leaders. It wasn't always that way. In 2007, there were only five UAV attacks, compared to three in 2006, one in 2005, and one in 2004. Back then it wasn't just the lack of identified targets that kept the UAVs away but fewer UAVs and Pakistani resistance to American UAVs making attacks inside Pakistan (even though the targets were terrorists attacking Pakistanis, including senior leaders). By 2008, the Pakistani leaders changed their minds, largely because the Pakistani Taliban were taking control of large areas in the tribal territories and Islamic terror groups like al Qaeda were going after senior Pakistani politicians and military leaders.
This Hellfire campaign was hitting al Qaeda at the very top, although less than a quarter of the attacks have struck at the most senior leaders. But that means most of the Taliban and al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan has been killed or badly wounded. Perhaps even greater damage has been done to the terrorist middle management. These are old and experienced lieutenants, as well as young up-and-comers. They are the glue that holds al Qaeda and the Taliban together. Their loss is one reason why it's easier to get more information on where leaders are and why rank-and-file al Qaeda and Taliban are less effective as a result. The U.S. and Pakistan have collected a lot of information from terrorists about how damaging the UAV attacks have been.
It's not just the terrorist leaders who are opposed to these tactics (of hitting the senior enemy leadership via "decapitation" attacks). All leaders, be they elected or otherwise, are uneasy about such operations. It's rather personal and brings the war closer to the top people than they would like. While Islamic terrorist leaders are enthusiastic about suicide bombings and suicidal attacks in general, they pay a lot of attention to safety for themselves and their immediate family. Their sons are rarely used as suicide bombers. Moreover, it is demoralizing to their followers if they see the boss and his bodyguards get blown to pieces by an American missile.
While killing the enemy leader has long been seen as an ideal way to end a battle or war, in practice senior leaders tended to avoid killing each other. This has become something of an unofficial and unspoken arrangement that has been breached by this UAV campaign. But as the Israelis demonstrated a decade ago, the best way to weaken or end a terror campaign is to go for the leadership. While this sort of thing disrupts the organizations losing their senior people, it also sends a message that being at the head of a terrorist group is, shall we say, terrifying.
To further muddy the waters, rural Afghans were opportunistic about the Western media obsession with the mythical civilian casualties from smart bomb and guided missile attacks. Foreign troops in Afghanistan and Iraq regularly found that the locals could be incredibly corrupt, often to an astonishing degree. That’s because Iraqis, and especially Afghans, consider stealing from foreigners to be a laudable goal and this is a tradition that goes back thousands of years. One of the more common scams had to do with false claims for compensation because foreign troop actions caused deaths or injuries. Many of these scams succeeded again and again. Eventually the foreign troops caught on, often with the discreet help of friendly, and a lot more honest, locals. After that many details of attempted compensation fraud were documented.
One of the best examples of this is the “dead goat scam” in which Afghan villagers lie about who was killed by a NATO bomb in order to obtain more compensation money, and to avoid Taliban retribution. This one was quite common and works like this. Often, when a smart bomb gets dropped in an isolated location (which describes most of Afghanistan), and there is any chance of civilian casualties the locals will make a fuss about seeking to find who was hurt or killed. The village elders insist that outsiders (as in U.S. military personnel investigating the damage) stay away during this trying time. Even the foreign soldiers and Afghan police are put off (after a quick search for Taliban bodies, documents, and equipment is completed). Being good Moslems, the villagers bury the dead before sunset on the same day. The next day, the elders will claim as many civilian dead, killed by smart bombs, as they think they can get away with. Sometimes additional graves get a dead goat or other animal, so the proper stench permeates the mound of earth. Digging up graves is also against Islamic law, so the elders know the foreign troops have to take their word for it. The elders know that the foreign troops, depending on nationality, will pay $1,000-$5,000 compensation per dead civilian. Not only is there a big payday, but the Taliban appreciate the bad publicity directed at the foreigners and usually show their appreciation by cutting this village or valley some slack in the future. The villages encourage this by offering the local Taliban a cut of the compensation money.
This scam works because there aren't many public records in Afghanistan. The only ones who know exactly who lives in a village are the people there and the elders speak for everyone. Investigators have a hard time interrogating individuals because the elders, and everyone there, has a vested interest in not being found out. Sometimes the elders get greedy. For example, despite an intensive investigation into a 2008 bombing in Azizabad (outside Heart), the villagers got paid for over 90 dead. Investigators, piecing together what information they could, were certain that there were only 15 dead civilians (plus Taliban). But you can't touch the graves, and even questioning the veracity of the claims gets you howls of indignation.
With the American troops and their compensation payments gone, the locals dwell on the usefulness of the continued UAV attacks in keeping the local Islamic terrorists so busy they spend less time bothering local civilians.