New policy on drones

PRESIDENT Obama’s speech at the American National Defence University last Thursday attracted a great deal of attention and analysis.

It is particularly important for us in Pakistan to understand exactly what was said and what it means for the continuation of drone attacks in the Af-Pak region and for the possible release of Taliban prisoners in Guantanamo. (The latter will be analysed in a subsequent article.)

We must do so bearing in mind what US officials had said earlier and the new classified policy guidelines that Obama approved the day before his speech.

The first thing to note is that while limits have been placed on the use of drones these do not apply to areas of “active hostilities”.

President Obama said: “In the Afghan war theatre, we must — and will — continue to support our troops until the transition is complete at the end of 2014. And that means we will continue to take strikes against high-value Al Qaeda targets, but also against forces that are massing to support attacks on coalition forces. But by 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.”

Does the Afghan theatre include Pakistan’s tribal areas? Does the phrase “forces that are massing to support attacks on coalition forces” include Taliban insurgents assembling in Pakistan’s tribal agencies? I believe that as in the past Af-Pak is the theatre and will continue to be treated as such.

After 2014, Obama says, the need for drone strikes will be reduced. The fact sheet put out by the White House on this subject says: “Lethal force will be used only to prevent or stop attacks against US persons.” This would suggest that if there is no residual American troop presence after 2014 drone attacks will cease but otherwise there will be a legal justification for continuing them.

Does the new policy mean the discontinuation of “signature strikes” ie strikes against groups exhibiting terrorist patterns? It would seem that, for the Americans, this would now be covered by the “massing of forces to support attacks on coalition forces” and are therefore likely to be seen as covered by the current guidelines.

Can such attacks be launched on Pakistani territory even if the latter is included in the Af-Pak theatre without Pakistan’s consent? In the past Obama had maintained that such attacks could be launched if the host nation was unwilling or unable to take action. Now the new guidelines say that “whenever the United States uses force in foreign territories, international legal principles, including respect for sovereignty and the law of armed conflict, impose important constraints on the ability of the United States to act unilaterally — and on the way in which the United States can use force. The United States respects national sovereignty and international law”.

This suggests that Pakistan’s consent would be necessary for such attacks. It speaks, however, of “constraints” not of a ban. Moreover, the same guidelines say: “These new standards and procedures do not limit the president’s authority to take action in extraordinary circumstances when doing so is both lawful and necessary to protect the United States or its allies.”

In my view before resorting to an interpretation of “constraint” or the “extraordinary circumstances” clause, the Americans will try to secure in some form or the other the same sort of understanding with the new government that retired Gen Musharraf recently revealed he had reached in 2004.

There was in Obama’s speech a fresh emphasis on international and bilateral partnership. Pakistan finds a mention as the country that has lost “thousands of Pakistani soldiers fighting extremism”. Again there is a mention of the need to rebuild the US-Pak “important partnership” in the context of the damage done by the Osama bin Laden killing in Abbottabad. But there’s no mention anywhere of Pakistan’s frequent assertion that the drone attacks do not now enjoy its consent and are seen as a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.

The number of drone attacks in Pakistan has decreased sharply. Peter Bergen of the New American Foundation, which does a good job of tracking such attacks through newspaper reports and other sources, estimates there were only 12 attacks in 2013 as against 122 in 2010. Drone attacks were reduced sharply after the Raymond Davis affair, the Salala incident and more recently during the election period. The conclusion one can draw is that the impact on US-Pak relations will weigh in making decisions on whether or not to launch drone attacks but the overriding priority will remain the protection of American lives.

One can argue that the drone attacks have not been as effective as originally envisaged. It has been calculated that in the 355 strikes in Pakistan only 37 leaders of Al Qaeda or affiliated organisations were killed and even if Taliban leaders were added the total number would not exceed 80 or so.

The remaining of the total of 1,600 — a conservative estimate — were either low-level Taliban or civilians. This ineffectiveness has been one important facet of the groundswell of international protest against drones. This has however, as is apparent from the new Obama policy, not been enough to secure an abandonment of this weapon.

The new government will face a dilemma. On the one hand, it needs American support to get assistance for its beleaguered economy. On the other, Pakistan’s charged public opinion, built up by a steady stream of unwise propaganda, wants the drone issue to be the determinant of future Pak-US relations. Can the new government work on mitigating public opinion? Can it seek US agreement on making Pakistan party to targeting decisions and secure an unequivocal commitment that no such attacks will be envisaged after 2014?

About the writer: Najmudding A. Shaikh is a former foreign secretary of Pakistan.

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