On September 7, Pakistan officially became the world’s ninth country to successfully develop an unmanned combat aerial vehicle, which it used in an operation against Taliban militants in the northwestern tribal area along the border with Afghanistan. Three militants died in the attack. Beyond furthering Pakistan’s fight against the Taliban, the Pakistani drone conveyed to Washington that the era of Washington’s own drone activities within Pakistan’s borders is drawing to a close.
The United States started its drone campaign against Islamist extremists in the country’s tribal areas in 2004. Since then, there have been hundreds of drone strikes on high-profile militants linked to al Qaeda and Taliban. The strikes have been effective insofar as they have killed many high-profile Taliban and al Qaeda militants in the country’s tribal region—for example, Hakimullah Mehsud, the chief of Pakistani Taliban, who was involved in the killing of thousands of innocent Pakistani citizens and died in 2013; and Hakimullah’s predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, who died in 2009. As a result of these losses, the Pakistani Taliban, although not defeated, has come under serious strain.
The U.S. drone war, however, has long been unpopular and polarizing. Pakistan’s Islamist and right-wing political parties, including Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which heads a coalition government in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, have strongly condemned the program. PTI, which is led by former international cricket star Imran Khan, blocked NATO supply lines for months in 2013 in retaliation for the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud, just as the government was sitting down with the Pakistani Taliban for initial peace talks. The U.S. drone program was also unpopular under former General turned President Pervez Musharraf, but he was better able to ward off the opposition. As civilian politicians returned to the fray, first under Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and later under current Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the program became all the more politically untenable.
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