Less than a week after President Barack Obama’s speech marking a policy shift on the use of drones, the CIA broke its weeks-long hiatus with a drone attack in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal area. The target of the attack, according to reports, was Wali-ur-Rehman, a leader of the Pakistani Taliban. The alleged strike signals that while Obama has spoken of a curtailment of drones, such attacks will continue in Pakistan where targets are deemed worthy. But on the eve of a new government taking office in Pakistan, after an election marked by sharp anti-U.S. sentiment, Washington may find that it will face stiff resistance to any drones at all.
The attack on Wednesday is particularly significant as the target was the deputy leader of the Pakistani Taliban. Rehman was notorious as a fearsome strategist for the militant group that uses the tribal areas as a sanctuary from where it launches or directs terrorist attacks inside Pakistan, killing innocent civilians and security forces. He was also on a U.S. State Department list of “Specially Designated Global Terrorists,” with an advertised reward of up to $5 million for information leading to his whereabouts. It is unclear how Pakistan will see the drone strike. In public, it has long denounced all drone strikes as intolerable violations of its sovereignty and responsible for the loss of civilians lives. But the Pakistani army will no doubt be pleased to be rid of one of the country’s most dangerous terrorists.
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For nearly a decade now, Pakistan’s tribal areas have been the principal site of operation for the CIA’s covert drones program. Since 2004, over 350 drone strikes are reported to have killed thousands while targeting an assortment of al-Qaeda and Taliban militants based along the border with Afghanistan. The program started, as former Pakistani military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf conceded earlier this year, with quiet Pakistani approval. Until 2008, there was even close cooperation on the drones program, with Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani telling U.S. officials at one point, according to a leaked State Department cable, that the strikes can continue while he will protest in parliament. But since then, as the CIA pursued an independent course, using its own network, stepping up the frequency of the attacks, and targeting a wider range of militants, Pakistan has become strident in its opposition.
While Obama’s speech has been seen as marking a departure from a previously open-ended policy with few rules, in Pakistan the restraints it proposed on the drone program were widely seen as offering too little, too late. “I think it was a modest step forward,” says Mushahid Hussain, the head of the Pakistani Senate’s Committee on Defense. “Finally, Obama has showed some sensitivity on the violation of sovereignty and the killing of innocent civilian lives by drone strikes. But at the end of the day, the drones will continue. The wrongs are not being reversed. There’s only talk of cosmetic changes.”
The Obama administration’s new limits on the drones program will include an end to so-called “signature strikes.” These are missile strikes that target groups of “military-aged men” on the basis of their behavioral patterns and are widely criticized for running the risk of high casualties. In a recent report, released before Obama’s speech, the International Crisis Group recommended that all such signature strikes come to an end. Just over two years ago, a missile strike in Datta Khel, North Waziristan reportedly killed dozens of people, who later turned out to be a group of tribesmen discussing a property dispute. The army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani led a chorus of condemnation at the time.
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Since then, drone strikes in Pakistan have dropped in frequency and are reported to claim dramatically fewer civilian casualties. This year, there have only been around 13 drone strikes, according to a New America Foundation tally, compared with over 120 in 2010. Over the past year, the Pakistan government has been in discussions with the Obama administration about how to bring an end to the drones program. Obama’s speech last week signaled that the current program run by the CIA will run its course next year, after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The program will eventually pass from the CIA to the Department of Defense, in a move to bring about greater legal transparency.
“Pakistan sees the strikes as an egregious violation of sovereignty,” says Sherry Rehman, the outgoing Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. “There is no appetite for drone strikes at the official and popular level, in fact, quite the contrary.” In the recent election campaign, former cricket legend turned politician Imran Khan won the highest number of seats in the northwest province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa partly because of his hostility to U.S. policies in the region. Khan courted the votes of the conflict-weary population there by vowing to end drone strikes and the involvement in the so-called “war on terror” there. In a country where levels of anti-American sentiment have soared to 92% according to a poll last year, hostility to drones has become nearly universal.
Faced with popular pressure, the next government led by Nawaz Sharif will have to be seen to be standing up to the U.S. on the issue. The change of government, says a senior Sharif aide, provides an opening to reset the terms of Pakistan’s relationship with the U.S. “There is an opening for Pakistan to cease the drone strikes altogether,” says Khurram Dastgir-Khan, a leading member of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party. “We want to show that we can deal with this issue on our own. We will pursue a full range of options that includes not just force, but negotiations, how the tribal areas are governed, and how the civilian government’s relationship with the military can be improved to deal with this issue. This will give the U.S. the confidence that we can deal with our problems on our own.”
But while drone strikes like Wednesday’s have successfully eliminated several senior militants from al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban, there are still others from among them that continue to skulk in the mountainous terrain and pose a threat to the U.S., Pakistan and Afghanistan. To be able to act against them, the U.S. still wants to retain the ability to mount drone strikes if the intelligence is reliable enough, at least for the next year and a half. And until then, drones will continue to be a source of tension between Washington and Islamabad in a relationship that continues to show few signs of improvement.