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Drone rules

January 22, 2013

THAT the Obama administration is enamoured of the drone, the most high-profile weapon in so-called targeted-killing operations, is well-known enough. Weaponised drones, when used carefully and selectively in environments like Fata, can and do produce results — Pakistani officials have for years privately maintained the efficacy of strikes in Fata, even as they publicly denounce them and/or demand closer cooperation in the execution of strikes. But enemy kills alone do not account for the overall effectiveness of any new weapon of war — as has been borne out by the anger inside Pakistan and among national security officials that drone strikes in Fata evoke. With so little known about the operation of drone strikes by the CIA inside Pakistan, a report in the Washington Post detailing the Obama administration’s efforts to build a ‘play book’ guiding targeted-killing operations, in effect assassinations in remote areas, by the US has yielded some tantalising details.

Pakistan, as the Post reports, will be excluded from the new rules being developed for at least a year and perhaps up to two years. Why? “Imposing the playbook standards on the CIA campaign in Pakistan would probably lead to a sharp reduction in the number of strikes at a time when Obama is preparing to announce a drawdown of US forces from Afghanistan that could leave as few as 2,500 troops in place after 2014,” according to the Post. This is a remarkable admission and essentially makes clear that drones are being used to satisfy political timetables of the US. Concerned that post-2014 the regional environment may not permit as many strikes, could the US be rushing through strikes in Pakistan that more measured decisions would veto? That possibility is all the more stark given that the new rules will be immediately implemented in Yemen and Somalia. Is the Obama administration claiming that what’s good enough for Yemen and Somalia is somehow a bar too high when it comes to Fata?

Equally troubling is that the architect of the ‘play book’ will be the next director of the CIA. In effect, John Brennan has exempted the organisation he will lead from implementing the very rules he has authored when it comes to Pakistan. The Post story notes, “Senior (US) administration officials have expressed unease with the scale and autonomy of the CIA’s lethal mission in Pakistan.” Why the unease? At its core, it is not a good idea to give any intelligence agency the kind of powers the CIA has in Pakistan. Just look at Pakistan for evidence of what can go wrong when intelligence agencies grab more and more power.