Drone Strikes in Pakistan Are Being 'Regularized,' As Old Allies Get Back to Business


Most countries wouldn’t have gotten over the whole “robot planes patrolling the skies” thing the first time around. But just years after expansive and one-sided American military operations inside Pakistani borders tanked relations between the the U.S. and Pakistan in 2011, Washington and Islamabad discretely announced this week they’d be taking the first steps toward burying the hatchet. Congress elected to restart military and economic aid to Pakistan suspended after the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s Abottabad compound, to the tune of an impressive $1.6 billion.

It’s the biggest development yet in a U.S.-Pakistan detente that’s been slowly unfolding as much of the world focused its attentions on Syria and Egypt. NATO supply lines into Afghanistan have reopened. Drone strikes are down significantly this year in Pakistan's tribal regions. And now, Pakistani President Nawaz Sharif has headed to White House to meet with President Obama, and good feelings seem to abound.

It seems like quite the about-face for a pair of countries at each others' throats nearly a year ago, and it's got many watchers feeling very good about the future of relations between the two nuclear powers.

But hold on to your warm and fuzzies. The restart of “strategic dialogue” between Pakistan and the US is a hard-headed, pragmatic move on both parts, and the biggest obstacle between the two — yes, the whole robot planes patrolling the skies thing — isn’t going anywhere soon.

What the about-face on U.S.-Pakistan relations does suggest is that a new equilibrium between more aid and less force may be in store, one that dovetails very nicely into Washington’s emerging grand strategy. A crucial part of this new relationship is likely to be the reduction of drone strikes in the area, something we’re already seeing. But why is pinning a restricted drone program to Pakistan relations even worthwhile for the U.S.?

Public dissatisfaction over Obama’s drone policy runs high in America, and it's overflowing, understandably, in Pakistan, where some 365 strikes have been ordered since 2004. Waziristan, as ostensibly lawless as parts of it may be, remains within Pakistani borders, and, in the minds of many in Pakistan and the West, strikes within it grossly violate national sovereignty. In a serious diplomatic understatement, Sharif described the drone operations as a “major irritant” in relations between the two nations at the outset of his U.S. visit. What’s even more troubling are reports released by the UN last week that suggest that, of some 2,200 killed in drone raids against Pakistan, over 400 were innocent civilians. The NGO estimates put that number much higher.

Long, tragic story short: drones have killed many, at times with questionable accuracy, and Pakistanis and Americans alike have reason to be outraged. Obama knows this.

Now, public opinion doesn’t satisfy everyone. But there’s a very real security undercurrent to a reasoned drawback on drone use. A simple fact has dominated the way America has used their drones abroad: they’re the only one doing it. A handful of countries do have military drones, but they’re limited in technological scope and almost non-existent in use against other nations. That’s changing.

Drones have become the new normal, and countries that the U.S. is on even less amiable footing with— the big three being Russia, China, and Iran — will inevitably seek them out. They already have, to an extent, and their technology will only get better. And the current precedent for their use set by the U.S. doesn’t spark much hope that a drone-filled world will be a safer one.

So like with nukes before them, the U.S. is positioning itself to guide new standards for global drone use. This means showing willing restraint. In his March 2013 speech on counterterrorism and drone use, Obama acknowledged both the debatable necessities of targeted strikes and their obvious limitations — using drones prevents putting U.S. troops directly in harm's way, but perpetual drone war in foreign lands ultimately causes more violence then it stops. The oversight and transparency the president urged suggests that Washington had finally caught on to just how unsustainable the current policy is.

And, to a degree, it's not just talk: strikes are down to just 21 this year, the lowest total since 2007. The Obama administration has made it a priority to “regularize” its drone use, and making part of that process voluntarily limiting drone strikes says something to future drone powers. That’s not to say the dialing in of drones is without irony, especially to those countries that seek them for themselves. But it’s a step in a new direction. 

Ramped up aid is the next step.

Washington wants fewer drones over Pakistan, but not less of the security they nominally afforded, especially as American troops dribble out of Afghanistan. Fittingly, the vast majority of the U.S.' $1.6 billion package is going towards helping Pakistan fight terrorism within its borders, equipping and mobilizing greater numbers of troops to fill the gap inevitably left by a drawback in the American military presence in the area, both human and drone.

The result is a new balance between unilateral drone use and bilateral strategic ties: a streamlined and limited drone policy may be help appease some of the vehement public disapproval of the program, while setting the framework for stronger global guidelines for international drone use, all while (ideally) keeping pressure on insurgency constant.

So why even keep drones in Pakistan if things are looking so good? Some of it has to do with trust: rampant corruption and shady ties with the militant Haqqani network make Pakistan an uneasy, if necessary, bedfellow for the U.S. Drones mean the U.S. still has some autonomy while pursuing shared counterterrorism goals in Pakistan. In the Obama administration’s mind, the restrained deployment of drones is perhaps the most conservative option for continuing its security options in Pakistan — flesh and blood soldiers on the ground have caused far more problems than drones (remember Abottabad?), and limited operations could be sustainable, even palatable, to Pakistani authorities under the right conditions and with the right incentives. The new aid package may just be that golden carrot.

And here’s the kicker: On Thursday, as Sharif reiterated his requests that the drone strikes cease, the Washington Post conveniently announced it had obtained CIA documents that indicated Pakistani officials knew of, and endorsed, drone strikes before they occurred. Analysts had been kicking around the suggestion for years, but the report now reveals that Islamabad itself doesn’t entirely want the drones to disappear.

A new partnership with the U.S. based on reduced drone strikes allows Pakistani leaders to have it both ways: They can appear to be acting in accordance with public opinion while at the same time act in complete defiance of it.

So what does this all add up to? Pakistan and the U.S.’ renewed partnership has consequences far beyond either of the two countries' borders, and it is a bold strategic move for American priorities in the broadest possible sense. Despite all the money and good feelings flowing, drones aren’t leaving Pakistan for good any time soon. But strikes will be different: They’ll be fewer, for one thing, and hopefully more judicious. And with new developments in Pakistan’s complicity in the strikes, how the new drone story is told is anyone’s game.