Targeted Killing

Why Drone Strikes in Pakistan Have Stopped (and Will It Last?)

By Robert Chesney
Thursday, May 29, 2014, 11:22 AM

Did you know that we have not carried out drone strikes in Pakistan since 2013?  A story from Ken Dilanian (now at AP) today does a nice job of laying out the many reasons why:

1. Fewer targets  ("Many of the senior al-Qaida figures in Pakistan have been killed"; "Hardcore al-Qaida militants from Pakistan have gone to Syria and Yemen...").

2. Better tradecraft by remaining targets ("Those who remain are much harder to target because they are avoiding mobile phones...").

3. Using children as human shields ("[They are] ...traveling with children, benefiting from stricter targeting rules designed to prevent civilian casualties.").

4. Reduced US troop presence in Afghanistan means reduced need to target non-AQ fighters ("The drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan has eliminated the need for 'force protection' strikes against large gatherings of militants in Pakistan suspected of plotting attacks against American troops."

5. And anyway we promised the Pakistanis we would lay off all but the biggest AQ targets ("In December, the Obama administration reached an informal deal with Pakistan that the CIA would suspend drone strikes — except against the most senior al-Qaida leaders — while the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif pursues peace talks with the Taliban. ").

It is worth asking which of these inhibiting factors is likely to last and remain robust.  The first one (AQ targets moving off to Syria and Yemen) obviously can flow in reverse if FATA once more becomes hospitable.  The second and third ones (avoiding cell phones, using human shields) is probably an ingrained feature of operational security for the smarter targets, though US willingness to hold back based on fear of civilian casualties might rise or fall over time.  The fourth factor (reduced force-protection needs next door) seems entrenched given the drawdown.  The fifth factor just as clearly could go away tomorrow depending on various factors.  In light of all that, the status quo (no strikes) is not necessarily locked in.  Which is what makes a separate part of the article so interesting:

Ken emphasizes two additional elements which, going forward, could not just further constrain drone strikes in Pakistan, but eliminate them outright.  Significantly, these are not arguments that appear to have been put forward by the unnamed officials who are the sources for the above-mentioned reasons.  At any rate, I find one of these additional arguments unpersuasive, but the other makes much sense.

6. DOD won't do it? The unpersuasive argument flows from the administration's purported preference to get the CIA out of the drone strike business, in favor of the military.  Ken observes that "[s]ince the military generally requires permission from a country to operate on its territory, most analysts don't believe it could carry out regular drone attacks in Pakistan." I think this misses a critical step.  The U.S. government's position is that there is an "unable-or-unwilling" exception allowing for the use of force in self-defense on another's territory even absent consent or a Chapter VII Security Council authorization, in certain circumstances.  That position is criticized by many, but I'm unaware of DOD having any problems with it.

7. Drawdown in Afghanistan = loss of practical capacity to strike in FATA? The more persuasive argument is a practical one flowing from the ongoing drawdown next door in Afghanistan.  "The targeted killing program in Pakistan relies on drones flown from, and intelligence gathered in, U.S. bases in Afghanistan that would then be closed.... But as the CIA closes its remote Afghanistan outposts where case officers met with Pakistani sources and technicians eavesdropped on cellphones, intelligence collection will dry up, making militants harder to track."  That's a critical point, and its impact will be felt long before the completion of the drawdown at the end of 2016.