Don’t Call It a Comeback

After a six-month lull, the CIA's drones are dropping bombs on Pakistan again. But the policy is as misguided as ever.


After almost six months without a CIA drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal areas, militants and military analysts alike might have been lulled into thinking the longest sustained U.S. covert bombing campaign in history was at an end. Events last week proved them wrong.

The first drone strike in Pakistan came 10 years ago this week, with the assassination of Taliban leader Nek Muhammad. Over the next half-decade — the last years of George W. Bush’s administration — the CIA’s bombings came as rarely as once a year. But when President Barack Obama took office, the program ramped up. During Obama’s first five years, the CIA averaged one strike every six days, in bombings that killed at least 1,900 people, most of them alleged militants. Yet after an attack on Dec. 25, 2013, the strikes ground to a halt. Islamabad had begged Washington for a reprieve in order to give peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) a chance. Those talks are now off and the Obama administration’s drone policy is back on. But instead of the United States seizing an opportunity to rethink the controversial campaign, it appears to be back to business as usual — a status quo that brings few strategic advantages for either Pakistan or the United States.

The June 9 assault on Karachi’s airport was proof that Pakistan’s insurgency has reignited. Some 29 civilians died, along with 10 militants from the TTP and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Propaganda sites described the attack as either retribution for months of Pakistan Air Force bombings or for the CIA’s killing of TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud with a drone seven months earlier.

Within 48 hours the CIA’s drones ended their 168-day hiatus with an attack on North Waziristan. Among those killed were "Uzbek militants" with alleged links to the Karachi assault — an intervention one senior Pakistani defence official describes as "helpful." A day later, the drones returned to the same area, this time killing 10 alleged militants from the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban. There were fresh strikes on Dargah Mandi again on June 18 that killed six more alleged militants.

The multiple objectives of these strikes indicates just how complex the CIA’s actions in Pakistan remain, a far cry from the straightforward counterterrorism program often claimed by U.S. officials. To the American public, the drone strikes are presented as a tool to be used against al Qaeda. But the web of insurgents and terrorists in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) — the targets of the CIA’s drones — is far more complex.

Extremist groups in FATA are clustered in three distinct yet interconnected campaigns. Remnant al Qaeda members and associates like the IMU are supported by — and at times support — various Taliban groups, as with the Karachi assault. But these al Qaeda elements have not been the primary focus of drone strikes since the Bush administration. Instead, the so-called "good Taliban," FATA-based factions focused on the insurgency across the border in Afghanistan and viewed by Islamabad as a strategic bulwark against Indian influence in any post-U.S./NATO Afghanistan, have borne the brunt. Islamabad, meanwhile, feels that the "bad Taliban," or TTP, a federation bent on overthrowing the Pakistani state, should be the primary target of drone strikes. But that generally happens only when Pakistan’s preferred target coincides with the United States’ immediate interests.

The public focus of recent clashes between Pakistan and the United States has been on sovereignty issues and the legitimacy of CIA drone operations. This has masked a more important, long-running dispute over which of these three clusters should be the focus of FATA strikes — and to what extent Pakistan should be involved in any targeting process. These dynamics were locked into the campaign at its inception, with the assassination of Nek Mohammad a decade ago, on June 17, 2004. Mohammad was a local Taliban commander and a minor irritant to U.S. forces across the border — hardly the "Qaeda terrorist leader" the nascent targeted killing program appeared to demand. As the New York Times‘ Mark Mazzetti has plausibly demonstrated, Mohammad’s death was instead an act of clientelism by the CIA. By killing a Taliban leader on Islamabad’s own hit list, the United States shored up support from President Pervez Musharraf’s military government for the subsequent targeted killing of their real targets: al Qaeda suspects.

Washington has been inconsistent in the extent to which it is willing to put its Predators in the service of Islamabad. When the Bush administration shifted drone targeting in 2008 mainly from al Qaeda to "good Taliban" groups in response to a spiraling Afghan insurgency, it dismissed at the same time Pakistani appeals to confront the TTP. Then, just one year later, the Obama administration used the CIA’s drones to hammer the TTP’s leadership as part of an inducement for a massive (and successful) Pakistani operation to clear much of South Waziristan of militants.

Now with Pakistan’s long-promised offensive in North Waziristan underway, the United States’ lethal clientelism may be back. The Pakistan Air Force has so far been hammering TTP and IMU positions, generating casualties far in excess of any caused by CIA drone strikes. In one sequence of bombings on June 15 alone, 140 alleged militants were killed. The Pakistani military has promised a "comprehensive operation against foreign and local terrorists who are hiding in sanctuaries… regardless of hue and color." But it soon became clear that there was only one real target, the TTP — not the "good Taliban." Chief of the Army Staff General Raheel Sharif said that only those who "have picked up arms against the state of Pakistan" would be hit.

The CIA refuses to comment on whether it is a partner in the assault on North Waziristan. Publicly, at least, Pakistan suggests it is not working with the CIA in response to the Karachi attack. Hours after the U.S. drone attacks resumed, the government condemned them a
s "a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity." But a senior Pakistani military official told me that Islamabad had advance warning of the recent CIA drone strikes and that the generals are generally happy with their effects. For the present it may appear easier for Islamabad to protest the bombing of some "good Taliban" while privately welcoming U.S. assistance in hammering Pakistan’s "bad Taliban" enemies. But this "public condemnation/private support" model has served both nations poorly before now. The strikes damage perceptions of both the civilian government and military in the eyes of ordinary Pakistanis. Meanwhile, the United States finds itself attacked for "imposing" strikes upon an ally.

More broadly, the resumption of the CIA’s drone campaign after the longest pause in eight years represents a missed opportunity to refocus the program, if not end it altogether. A bold strategic shift might have seen Washington adopt a dual-control approach with Pakistan, returning the focus of any drone strikes to al Qaeda and associates in anticipation of a U.S. exit from Afghanistan. This has worked in Yemen with some success. Bolder still would have been an end to the entire covert Pakistan bombing program, a feasible goal. If the CIA can apprehend terrorist suspects in Libya, why can they only kill them with drones in Pakistan? The least tenable option was business as usual — exactly the road the administration has taken.

Obama said in a landmark May 2013 speech at the National Defense University, "[B]y the end of 2014, we will no longer have the same need for force protection, and the progress we’ve made against core al Qaeda will reduce the need for unmanned strikes." For 168 days that statement looked like it was becoming a reality. But, says a former senior U.S. intelligence official, this may simply be empty rhetoric from a president some see as addicted to "risk-free" covert or clandestine drone strikes. "That speech he made at NDU? I mean, God, it was all Hamlet, wasn’t it?" the former official said. "It was ‘Wars can’t last forever, they corrupt democracy, and so on and so forth, and, oh yeah, I’m going to keep on doing what I’m doing.’" For the time being, revived U.S drone strikes appear in harmony with Pakistan’s aims as the North Waziristan assault continues. The challenge will come when this coincidence of interests ends.

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