The drones, people say, are always there. In Pakistan’s tribal areas, the mountainous land along the northwest border, they can be seen and heard hovering above villages, sometimes in a cluster, often over mosques, markets and other gathering places.
By now, eight years into the United States’s undeclared air war on Islamist militants in Pakistan – a war that has intensified under Barack Obama – many Pakistanis say they can feel the drones even when they are not actually around. They carry a psychic trauma from living in fear of a strike at any moment from a weapon that can hang 12,200 metres above a village for 40 hours at a time.
Pakistanis unite against this idea of the invisible, ever-present enemy, even far away in urban Lahore. Imran Khan, a former cricket star who has become a leading opposition politician, has vowed that, if elected president, he will use the military to attack drones that violate Pakistan’s sovereignty.
The current government avoids the issue (especially the question of how much it cooperates), but officially it opposes them as a violation of international law. Newspapers and participants on vibrant Pakistani TV shows continually denounce the drones.
Yet behind closed doors, there is another, quieter conversation about the drone war under way – a more pragmatic, sometimes even approving one, which few people dare to have in public.
When a gunman boarded a school bus in the Swat Valley city of Mingora last month and shot a 15-year-old girl named Malala Yousufzai in the head – because, the Pakistani Taliban proclaimed, she advocated the “Western” idea of girls’ education – revulsion engulfed the country.
The Swat Valley was supposed to have been purged of militants in a 2009 military campaign. Although Taliban and al-Qaeda affiliates carry out almost daily attacks in the tribal areas and the north, they have not attacked the big cities often in the past two years. But the shooting of Malala made the problem once more impossible to ignore.
Clearly, the Taliban are not only unvanquished, they are operating with a considerable degree of comfort, or impunity. And, as always, it is unclear how much the intelligence services are able or willing to do.
Which leads to this forbidden question: If the Taliban are a genuine and grave danger, might U.S. drones not be the best possible way to fight them?
While no figures are released by the United States, anti-drone organizations and international research initiatives agree that there have been at least 300 attacks in Pakistan since the campaign began in 2004.
The policy is not controversial in the U.S.: When it was raised at all in the recent election, it was with approval on both sides. There has been very little public discussion about the program, or its legality, although some left-wing critics of Mr. Obama condemn it, especially when there are reports of civilian deaths.
The U.S. government will confirm none, but the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a British non-profit news organization, has researched and estimates the number of civilian deaths at 391 to 780 people, including 160 children. Many Pakistani organizations put it higher.
Living Under Drones, a report released this fall by groups at the Stanford and New York University law schools, said the strikes undermine international respect for the rule of law. The evidence that they make the United States safer, the report says, is “ambiguous at best.”
But do they make Pakistan safer?
The markets of Lahore were thronged with people in the days before Eid al-Adha last month, with families buying clothes for the children and knickknacks for their homes. In Islamabad, there are new cafés and boutiques in every neighbourhood; red-velvet cupcakes are trendy.
Two years ago, when the Taliban were sending suicide bombers into crowded public places in these cities every week or two, the markets and the coffee shops were deserted and people were afraid even to go to mosques.
That terror campaign has been checked – either because the Taliban have changed tactics or, as many analysts here suggest, because the intensified drone campaign has weakened them.