Strike Against Pakistani Taliban Ends Drone Cease-fire

Obama rolls out new drone policy with attack against Taliban No. 2.

Pakistani protesters burn a representation of a U.S. flag to condemn a drone attack in the Pakistani tribal area of Waziristan that killed Taliban leader Waliur Rehman, on May 30, 2013 in Multan, Pakistan.

Pakistani protesters burn a representation of a U.S. flag to condemn a drone attack in the Pakistani tribal area of Waziristan that killed Taliban leader Waliur Rehman, on May 30, 2013 in Multan, Pakistan.

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The drone cease-fire in Pakistan is over, following reports Thursday the U.S. killed a high-ranking Taliban official in the country's northwestern tribal mountain region.

The contentious Pakistani election that began in April likely prompted the U.S. to quell the Hellfire and Stinger missiles falling from CIA and Air Force drones targeting insurgents in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the mountainous border with Afghanistan, experts said. This most recent strike came on the heels of President Barack Obama's remarks last week that the U.S. would narrow the scope of missions in which it could use armed unmanned aerial vehicles.

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This attack against Waliur Rehman, the deputy leader of the Pakistani Taliban, may signal a leaner drone presence in the skies over Pakistan as a new civilian government under Nawaz Sharif tries to reconcile anti-American talking points with the reality of local military operations.

"The first thing Sharif will learn is what the real options are," says Carol Christine Fair, professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point. Pakistan is complicit in these strikes, she says, even though previous governments have denounced involvement and castigated U.S. armed drones.

"The problem for various Pakistani governments and for people trying to understand this issue," she adds, "is [they] don't understand the way in which the Pakistani state operates: It makes various statements publicly, and then undermines those through private action."

 

Sharif, along with other candidates like former cricketer Imran Khan, used the drone strikes as a major talking point throughout the month-long campaign that ended with the May 14 election. Other Pakistani officials, including the ambassador to the U.S., have called the strikes a "red line" for U.S.-Pakistan relations.

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The situation is muddied by the complicated relationship between the civilian government and the military leadership, most notably housed in Inter-Service Intelligence, it's chief intelligence agency.

"It's entirely possible that every politician hates the drone program," says Fair. "It's also entirely possible that Pakistan's ISI completely facilitates the same drone strikes."

"At the end of the day, it's the ISI that calls these shots, not the elected civilians," she says.

It's also entirely possible that ISI gave the U.S. the intelligence regarding Rehman's whereabouts, says Karl Kaltenthaler, a professor at the University of Akron and specialist in these strikes.

"I think drone strikes are here to stay for a while in Pakistan," he says. Local officials will never publicly accept the strikes due to overwhelming public opposition.

"I expect just more of the same, that they'll continue to complain about them," Kaltenthaler says, adding the difference will be on the American side of the equation. "We will see far fewer drone strikes and they will be aimed at high value targets."

Obama announced on May 23 that the U.S. would limit its armed drone strikes against militants overseas to only situations in which direct military action to capture or kill is impossible, either via a local force or through U.S. special operations. The issue reached a boiling point after the White House unveiled it had purposefully targeted a U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, in Yemen in 2011 for actively plotting against the U.S.

The U.S. traditionally employs two kinds of drone strikes. The first is a "signature strike," in which a drone loiters over an area of known militant activity, and looks for any individual that fits the profile and behavior of a militant. But these can lead to the kind of errors that prompt fury in countries like Pakistan.

While speaking at the Aspen Institute in February, former special operations chief Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal recounted an incident in which his team employed a fatal drone strike in Afghanistan against a man who was digging next to the side of a road in the middle of the night, exhibiting the kind of behavior consistent with an insurgent planting a roadside bomb. It turned out to be a farmer who was rerouting the flow of water to an irrigation ditch at a pre-scheduled time set up by a local farming commune, the retired general said.