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Pakistanis skeptical of new 'smoke and mirrors' drone policy

Lt. Col.. Leslie Pratt / US Air Force via AP

This undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Air Force shows a MQ-9 Reaper, armed with GBU-12 Paveway II laser guided munitions and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, during a combat mission over southern Afghanistan.

ISLAMABAD – President Obama outlined new guidelines for the use of drones to kill terrorists overseas in a major speech reframing counterterrorism policy this week. 

But anti-drone activists in and out of Pakistan, as well as civilian victims in the tribal areas where many of the drones have struck, remain pessimistic about the White House’s new approach to the controversial program. 

"This will be good news for the people of North Waziristan if they really stopped drone strikes here,” said Haji Roshan Khan, a local tribal elder in Miranshah, a town in Pakistan's volatile North Waziristan tribal region, where many of the U.S. drone strikes were carried out.  

Rahmanullah Dawar, a resident of Mir Ali in North Waziristan, also said he'd welcome an end to the drones. "Believe me every one in Waziristan has been suffering from mental disorders due to non-stop hovering of drones over our heads. It has a very bad sound that pierced through the brain of the people.”

Both men said that even though senior militants or foreigners were the prime targets of the unmanned spy planes, many civilians, including women and children, lost their lives or became physically handicapped as a result of the drone strikes.

Clive Stafford Smith, a British-American lawyer who heads “Reprieve,” a human rights watchdog headquartered in London, was also skeptical of the new policy. “This is mainly smoke and mirrors. Obama wants to rein things in, but does not want to seem soft – especially after Boston.”   

Smith doesn’t believe Obama’s address at the National Defense University marked a sea change in the U.S.’s official position on the program.

“I don't think this is a big deal at all, actually,” said Smith. “This is 'transparency' in totally meaningless form, since everyone knew it was happening anyway – it is just them pretending to be transparent, but saying absolutely nothing.” 

Haji Mujtaba / REUTERS

Tribesmen gather at a site of a missile attack on the outskirts of Miranshah, near the Afghan border, October 12, 2008. Due to the remote nature of the attacks, photos are rarely available.

Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer who has been petitioning the local courts, against both what he claims is the U.S. government’s illegal drone program, as well as the Pakistani rulers’ compliance with the CIA, was not impressed with Obama’s announcements.

“What I have read from his speech today is that [Obama] is now admitting to more civilian deaths than he would admit before,” said Akbar. “But he is still continuing with it on [the] basis of more strategic benefit for U.S. than some weight on America’s conscience.”

Akbar claims that it is the emerging evidence of the strikes killing Americans without due process, as well more international attention towards collateral damage and civilian casualties from the drone strikes, thanks to recent studies, UN concern, as well as local litigation, that has forced the U.S. to finally address the details of the what many Pakistanis call the “war that does not exist.”

“Until early 2011, there was hardly any mention of civilian deaths or real names and identities of those killed. This missing human element allowed CIA to keep carrying on with what they were doing,” said Akbar. “Now with all this talk of deaths and names, pictures and stories coming out, it is becoming politically too risky. Therefore Obama has decided to be rather careful.” 

On Pakistan’s front lines, in the volatile tribal areas where most of the missiles fired from U.S. drones land, the military views Obama’s drone-cuts announcement obliquely.

“Forget the speech. It’s interesting that there have been just around a dozen attacks this year,” said a senior Pakistani commander stationed in a section of the semi-autonomous tribal agencies, the FATA, where the military has been engaged in combat operations since the mid-2000s, around the time the first drone strike was reported in 2004.

The officer, who asked not to be named, nor his location to be disclosed for security reasons, thought it might mean less work for his men. "My troops don’t have to deal with the almost immediate response that comes from miscreants whenever there is a drone strike…a suicide or armed attack on my boys within 24 hours of any drone attack.”

Muhammed Muheisen / AP

Images of daily life, political pursuits, religious rites and deadly violence.

But though Obama insisted in his Thursday announcement that “before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured,” victims of drone strikes had a different perspective about the controversial program.

"Previously [we] were told that usually foreigners belonging to al Qaeda were being killed in drone attacks,” said said Atiqur Rahman, 35, who’s family was targeted in a drone strike on Tapi village, North Waziristan last year.

“But the day they killed our mother and injured our eight children, I don't trust Americans and their claims of killing al-Qaeda fighters," said Rahman. He claimed his mother, 66, was present with her grandchildren in an open space in front of their home when a drone fired two missiles and killed her and injured his children on Oct. 24, 2012.

"I wish President Obama could feel our pain of losing our mother. We had nothing to do America or Obama but they destroyed our happy family."

Related 

Obama reframes counterterrorism policy with new rules on drones

For many Pakistanis, 'USA' means drones

NBC News coverage of Pakistan