Drone Lands Dispatch

Letter from Pakistan

Nabila Rehman, 9, holds up a picture she drew depicting the U.S. drone strike that killed her grandmother, Washington, D.C., October 2013. (Jason Reed / Courtesy Reuters)

In the most heavily targeted parts of Pakistan’s tribal regions -- the semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), in the northwest -- U.S. drone strikes are but a single form of state-sponsored killing, alongside conventional airstrikes and ground operations by Pakistan’s military, insurgent bombings, tribal hostilities, and everyday criminality. But drones occupy a special category of their own. The strikes began in 2004; they have since killed a total of 2,500 to 3,500 people. Estimates suggest that several hundred of those killed were innocent civilians. Last May, U.S. President Barack Obama said that those deaths would haunt him and his advisers for “as long as we live.”

In Pakistan, the strikes have been a source of bitter political contention from the very beginning. Broadly speaking, one side focuses on the violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty while the other -- a sizeable group -- maintains that drone strikes are the least bad option for maintaining some semblance of security in a restive region. For their part, the country’s politicians hold up victims of drone strikes to serve their own ends -- to illustrate the tyranny of the United States or the unfortunate sacrifices that must be made in the name of security.

To find out how Pakistanis think about drones after living under their shadow for nearly a decade, I recently spent a month travelling to Pakistan’s large cities and small villages -- places where most people’s concerns revolve around their day-to-day struggle to make ends meet. Talk to them, and you will find that the monolithic view in the West that all Pakistanis are enraged by drone strikes is inaccurate. In fact, further north -- closer to the areas that bear the brunt of the strikes -- it is not uncommon to encounter strong support for them.


Karachi is a giant swirl of nearly 21 million people, all competing to get by in their various, overlapping versions of the city. Karachi is a kind of gold rush town: everyone constantly sifts through the debris hoping to spot a golden nugget and strike it rich. It is a paradise for the fortunate few with the resources and bank balance to live in a security bubble; for most of the rest, life is a desperate grind.

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