Time to reassess drones

April 26, 2013

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— File Photo
— File Photo

THE US drone strike programme has entered a period of re-evaluation and reconfiguration. Nowhere is this more evident and important than in Pakistan.

Key indicators of reassessment and public inquiry include a sustained decrease in the reported number of strikes since 2010 and an even sharper drop in recent months.

Members of Congress have become increasingly vocal in expressing their concerns, exemplified by John Brennan’s extended confirmation process for the CIA directorship and Sen Rand Paul’s 13-hour Senate filibuster over the US drone policy.

In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama pledged to “continue to engage Congress” and to ensure proper transparency to the American public. Recently reported findings of the president’s intelligence advisory board that the US intelligence community has become too focused on military operations to the neglect of intelligence gathering, reflect American concerns over the drone strikes programme.

These indicators of reconsideration suggest a growing appreciation that drone strikes’ security gains may not be worth the political cost. Drone strikes do not appear to have sidelined the leadership of targeted groups in Pakistan, while engendering considerable public resentment of the United States.

Evidence of the programme’s re-evaluation as it relates to Pakistan is most apparent in the dramatic decline in the number of drone strikes since 2010. While a record 122 drone strikes occurred in 2010, the number fell to 73 in 2011 and 48 in 2012.

If American denials of involvement with two suspected drone strikes in early February were accurate, there was a complete two-month pause in strikes from mid-January to mid-March this year. US media reports attributed this lull in part to John Brennan’s extended confirmation process.

An incident between the United States and Pakistan did not prompt the early-2013 pause, unlike the two-month halt that followed the November 2011 Salala incident, when 24 Pakistani soldiers died in a US attack on Pakistani border posts. One trend line has been clear: CIA drone strikes in Pakistan have declined markedly as Pentagon drone strikes in Afghanistan have increased.

The military efficacy of drone strikes in Pakistan is constrained for several reasons.

Confined to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, drone strikes avoid cities and settled areas. It has been observed that rarely do these strikes in sparsely populated areas net “big fish,” because militant leaders are more likely to find safety in cities than in zones of conflict.

Osama bin Laden was found to reside in Abbottabad; Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was discovered in Rawalpindi; and Abu Zubaydah in Faisalabad. In March, Pakistani officials detained Lashkar-i-Jhangvi leader Qari Abdul Hayee in Karachi, accused of involvement in US journalist Daniel Pearl’s 2002 murder.

According to the public policy institute New America Foundation, the percentage of confirmed strikes killing leadership targets fell sharply from 33pc in 2008 to less than 7pc in 2010. Strikes directed at ‘leaders’, have since stabilised at roughly 10pc per year.

In 2013, three of 10 confirmed strikes have killed leadership targets. It remains to be seen whether the pattern of strikes so far in 2013 reflects an enduring change in targeting.

Drone strikes are deeply unpopular in Pakistan as an infringement of sovereignty, a finding supported by UN special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights Ben Emmerson last month.

Politicians of all stripes condemn civilian deaths. Political hopefuls — including PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf chairman Imran Khan — have vowed to end the drone strikes. In late February, President Asif Ali Zardari also termed drone strikes “counterproductive” and stressed the need for both countries to “find a way out”.

Likewise, public opinion in Pakistan overwhelmingly opposes drone strikes. A May 2011 Pew Global Attitudes poll found that 65pc felt they were a “very bad thing”, and only 2pc found them “good” or “very good”.

Drones have become the symbol within Pakistan of all that is wrong with Washington’s approach to Islamic extremism. More than 60pc of Pakistanis oppose US-led efforts to fight terrorism, and 69pc view America as more of an enemy than a partner of Pakistan.

Public opinion does not serve as the leading determinate of US foreign or military policy. But it is prudent for the United States to weigh the benefits of continuing current policy versus its drawbacks, which in this case include public vitriol and strained American-Pakistani relations.

The apparent US re-evaluation of drone strikes in Pakistan is warranted, particularly with the approaching advent of a new civilian government. The programme appears to have limited utility and is deeply unpopular in Pakistan. The trend since 2010, accentuated so far in 2013, points to limited strikes in the future, targeted increasingly at the militant leadership.

Julia Thompson is a research associate with the Stimson Centre, a global security think tank based in Washington DC.