Secretary of State John Kerry declared in an interview with Pakistan TV Thursday that U.S. drone strikes in the country will soon come to an end.
But that message apparently wasn’t relayed back to Foggy Bottom. Three hours after Kerry’s comments first broke, a spokesperson took them right back. "In no way would we ever deprive ourselves of a tool to fight a threat if it arises," a State Department spokesperson said.
Kerry is in Pakistan to try and make nice with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the country’s newly elected leader who has made repeated, vociferous demands for the United States to end its use of drone strikes on Pakistani territory. And for a few hours on Thursday it seemed that he had arrived bearing a major olive branch and a striking concession on U.S. drone policy. "The program will end as we have eliminated most of the threat and continue to eliminate it," he said in the interview. "I think the president has a very real timeline and we hope it’s going to be very, very soon."
But of course it was not meant to be. In a news conference with Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan’s national security advisor, Kerry went on to offer something of a defense of American drone strikes. Though Pakistani officials argue that such strikes breach Pakistani sovereignty, Kerry noted that terrorist attacks by militants in the country also "violate the sovereignty of this country."
Together, the two statements send a clear message. When all the terrorists are dead, the United States will be happy to end its program of covert drone strikes in Pakistan. Until that day comes — and it will be "soon," according to Kerry — strikes are likely to continue. To underscore that reality, the United States carried outthree drone strikes in Pakistan during the month of July. And in Yemen, the drone war made a roaring comeback this week with the United States carrying out three strikes in five days.
Nonetheless, Kerry will be returning to Washington with a diplomatic prize in hand. In his meetings with Pakistani officials Thursday, Kerry secured an agreement to restart partnership talks that collapsed two years ago amid intense anger in Islamabad over the impunity of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan.
The continuing use of drone strikes comes against a stated committed by President Obama to cut back on their use and bring the war on terror to a close. "Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue," he said in a landmark speech in May that coincided with new policy guidance that tightened standards for drone strikes. "But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands."
In practice, the drone strike genie is refusing to be returned to the bottle, as evidenced by State’s comment today that the United States would never "deprive" itself "of a tool to fight a threat if it arises." Compare that statement to Obama’s May speech: "As our fight enters a new phase, America’s legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion. To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance. For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power — or risk abusing it."
When that power will be constrained, however, is very much up for debate.