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The drone war may be over in Pakistan

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Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

It's been five months since the last US drone strike in Pakistan. The Associated Press is reporting that this isn't a temporary lull: the CIA's targeted killing program, according to the AP's sources, is basically over in Pakistan, which used to be its most active front. And while the US military's separate drone program still has authority to operate in Pakistan, it's been so constrained by changes in US policy that it's not clear if in practice it can actually continue. In Pakistan, at least, this may mean the end, or at least the drastic curtailment, of the US drone program.

How do we know there haven't been any strikes? There are multiple organizations that count the number of American drone strikes in Pakistan, often by tracking local media reports. None of these groups has seen evidence of a single US drone strike Christmas. Of them, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism generally reports the highest number of strikes and casualties. Yet even BIJ's count shows no strikes in 2014.

"The program [in Pakistan] appears to have ended," Peter Bergen, a New America Foundation scholar who studies the drone program, told the Associated Press. Anonymous government officials told the AP's Ken Dilanian that the program would continue, but Dilanian points out that the US cannot find targets without intelligence from Afghanistan. And Obama is dramatically scaling back the US ground presence there. Ergo, there will be fewer drone strikes, potentially none, because the US won't be able to identify who to target.

The drone strikes are likely also declining because, as ThinkProgress' Hayes Brown notes, the Obama administration has raised the bar for what can be used to justify individual drone strikes. The details of the new policy are still classified, but Dilanian reports that they prohibit strikes unless there's a "near certainty" civilians wont' be harmed. Presumably, America's deteriorating intelligence about Pakistani targets would probably make it even harder to be that certain.

There are plenty of other reasons besides intelligence shortages to explain why the targeted killing would be scaling back potentially permanently. For instance, the US is giving the military, rather than the CIA, more responsibility for targeted killing. But it's harder for the military to launch a drone strike in Pakistan than it is for the CIA to do. Overt, military-run strikes may require approval from Pakistan, depending on how you interpret the law. The Pakistani government appears to privately support drone strikes, but publicly condemns them. So the more technical authority the military has, the harder it might be for the US to launch strikes in Pakistan.

This is all suggestive evidence, not conclusive. The lull in drone strikes could very well be temporary. But suppose the AP is right and the program really has ended. What does it mean for Pakistan and US counter-terrorism policy?

For Pakistanis, it'll mean no more deaths from American drones — there have been over 2,000, by some counts. But there's some evidence that, absent drone strikes, the Pakistani military is more likely to launch aggressive ground operations against Taliban strongholds in northwest Pakistan. And, in fact, the Pakistani government just launched the first one in years on May 22. It's hard to prove a direct link between this offensive and the decline in drone strikes, but it'll be important to track going forward.

For the United States, the big question is whether this means other drone strikes will end worldwide. While drone strikes may have declined in Pakistan, the US dropped a "massive and unprecedented" number of bombs on al-Qaeda strongholds in Yemen in April. And the number of strikes in Yemen have been going up:


Yemen — along with Somalia, Iraq, and Syria — are becoming increasingly important hubs for violent Islamists. It's possible that the US is moving away from Afghanistan to start bombing other countries.

On the other hand, Obama may be concluding that drone strikes just don't work. His Wednesday foreign policy speech argued that the US "must shift our counter-terrorism strategy" to "to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold." The lessons of "Iraq and Afghanistan," according to Obama, include avoiding aggressive counterterrorism policies that "stir up local resentments."

Drone strikes definitely appear to do that. Moreover, it's not clear they actually disrupt al-Qaeda. A US Army-funded review of the statistical research found no conclusive evidence that drone strikes are weakening al-Qaeda or the Taliban. Research on groups similar to al-Qaeda suggests that they can likely survive the killing of a few leaders by drones.

So it's possible that Pakistan may be a leading indicator of Obama's view of drone strikes. It'll take months to be sure, but if the AP is right, this could mean the end of the worldwide drone program as we know it.

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