Last week reports emerged that the Obama administration plans to curb its Pakistan drone-strikes program. The news comes at a crucial time in the region’s rapidly changing security dynamic. There are widespread concerns that resurgent militants will fill the security vacuum created by the departure of troops from Afghanistan. The announcement also coincided with news that peace talks between the Pakistani government and the country’s Taliban had finally begun.
The U.S. announced that strikes will be limited to a shortlist of “high threat” militants. Some reports suggest Secretary of State John Kerry, during a visit to Islamabad in 2013, further promised that the program will terminate by the end of Nawaz Sharif’s prime-ministerial term. This will be little consolation to Sharif, who came to power last year. He has publicly called for an end to the strikes. If the U.S. honors its promise, at the very least, Sharif faces four more years of attacks against suspected militants.
Explanations differ as to the motives: several reports suggest that the change is a response to requests from the Pakistani government. But as one senior official said to The Washington Post, “Reports that we have agreed to a different approach in support of Pakistani peace talks are wrong.”
With the departure of American troops, the U.S. will lose the Afghan base from which it launched reconnaissance missions and strikes. The announcement represents a serious curtailment of the program. As the U.S. comes off a war footing, the announcement marks a clear attempt to use the narrowing window of opportunity to redouble efforts to eliminate high-profile targets. Success will depend on the CIA’s ability to win the support and cooperation of their Pakistani counterparts.
Sharif has won plaudits in Washington for his efforts to tackle Pakistan’s security challenges, and there is little doubt that a more restrained drone policy is an attempt to repair U.S.-Pakistan relations. America’s drone strikes have long been a source of diplomatic strife: in 2011 an errant attack killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, tipping the two countries into a diplomatic crisis. Strikes are also alleged to have killed civilians, radicalizing the country’s militants and so exacerbating Pakistan’s security crisis. In November last year a strike eliminated Hakimullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban, days before long-overdue peace talks were scheduled to take place. Militants immediately vowed revenge, setting the faltering peace process back by several months. Now that peace talks are underway, Obama will not want to make the same mistake twice. As Washington’s ties with Kabul continue to deteriorate, with Karzai entering into back-door talks with the Afghan Taliban, Obama cannot risk losing favor with Pakistan.
As one senior Obama administration official said, “The practical realities of the program, married with the goals of the bilateral relationship, are both in convergence.”
It is doubtful whether curbs on strikes will aid the peace process. In a list printed by Dawn, a leading Pakistani newspaper, the Taliban have presented 15 conditions for their peace negotiations. First and last on the list are demands that all drone strikes end and that all relations between Pakistan and the United States be terminated.
Mindful of the risks of announcing a change in strategy, leading officials have come forward to stress that the administration is “continuing to aggressively identify and disrupt terrorist threats in the Afghan war theater and outside areas.” The U.S. remains committed to eliminating high-ranking al Qaeda leaders and to protecting American citizens in the region. Despite its strategic importance, the offer to limit the strikes remains an “open agreement”: Obama has left the door open to revert to a more aggressive drone program. In an attempt to assuage their Pakistani colleagues, U.S. officials have said that the need for strikes will diminish as more militant leaders are deposed. This will do little to persuade many Pakistanis however, who remain suspicious of the CIA’s operations.
The Obama administration is increasingly short of options in the Af-Pak region: an obdurate Karzai has refused to sign a crucial security agreement that would allow the U.S. to maintain a small presence in Afghanistan after 2014, the specter of resurgent militants looms, and the new Pakistani administration has demanded greater control over its dealings with terrorist groups. With the logistical and diplomatic foundations of America’s drone policy quickly disintegrating, Obama has little choice but to change track. A more restrained drone program, which focuses on targeting remaining al Qaeda leaders, serves a dual purpose: it expedites the United States’ security objectives and represents a move to traverse increasingly hostile diplomatic terrain.