US Resumes Drone Strikes in Pakistan: A New Course of Action?

In the past 24-48 hours, the United States has reportedly conducted two successive drone strikes in Pakistan’s northwest tribal area—ending an almost six-month suspension of US strikes inside the country (Long War Journal; Bureau of Investigative Journalism). According to local intelligence officials, the first strike killed Uzbek militants and members of the Pakistani Taliban. The second strike reportedly included 10 suspected members of the Haqqani network.

The strikes follow on the heels of a statement by the Pakistani Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan claiming that Uzbek militants had been involved in Sunday’s assault on Karachi International Airport. The Pakistani government has already begun to react to that assault with airstrikes in the north of the country.

The sequence of events might suggest that the US drone strikes were “in response to” the recent assault on the airport, and thus designed to address the Pakistani government’s interests — not US direct interests and not direct threats to US persons. But is that accurate? Is that the most plausible explanation?

To be more precise, the drone strikes raise the following questions:

1. As Daphne Eviatar has asked, is the United States now directly employing lethal force on behalf of the Pakistani government in the latter’s conflict with internal militants?

2. Do the strikes need to comply with the May 23, 2013 Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG) which limits US lethal actions to threats only to US persons (in operations outside of areas of active hostilities)? And how could these strikes conceivably meet that standard?

Before delving into the answers, it should be emphasized that the PPG may be inapplicable here. The operations were conducted in the FATA, which is presumably part of the “Afghan theater” and an area of active hostilities.

Moreover, we may need to distinguish the two strikes–they may have been dealing with two different types of threats.

There are good reasons to think the drone strikes (1) served direct US security interests (i.e., they were not a direct response to the airport attack); and (2) targeted individuals and organizations who threaten US persons.

More specifically, the targets could have long been on a US list. Only now, with the recent breakdown in the Islamabad-Pakistani Taliban peace talks and Sunday’s assault on the airport, the US is more politically free to revive drone strikes without upsetting the Pakistani government. In other words, the US and Pakistani interests are more closely aligned. According to Reuters, “Two top [Pakistani] government officials said Islamabad had given the Americans ‘express approval’ for the strikes — the first time Pakistan has admitted to such cooperation.” The officials also referred to the strikes as a “joint Pakistan-U.S. operation.” (At the same time: the Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs has issued a statement on its website that it “condemns the two incidents of US drone strikes.” Is that déjà vu all over again?) 

Also, the targets might not have been on an existing list but were about to threaten US forces in Afghanistan. Buried in a WSJ story last night is this line: “Officials said Wednesday’s strike was for the purposes of protecting U.S. forces in Afghanistan.” And this morning, Reuters reports that in the second strike, “‘the drones targeted two mini vans which were carrying Taliban fighters associated with the Haqqani network to Afghanistan for an attack,’ [a] Taliban commander said.”

The strikes on the Haqqani network, in particular, may have been occasioned in part by the release of Sgt. Bergdahl. The US no longer needs to worry that hitting the organization will threaten Sgt. Bergdah’s life–a point made clear by retired Marine Gen. James Mattis on CNN a few days ago. He said:

“[W]e no longer have that concern that they have this pawn that they can then play against us. So there’s also a military vulnerability that the Haqqanis now face, that Taliban now faces because they no longer hold one of our U.S. soldiers in their … captivity. So, there’s also a freedom to operate against them that perhaps we didn’t fully enjoy so long as they held Bowe as a prisoner.”

The same point was elaborated by Secretary Hagel before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. when he was specifically asked to comment on General Mattis’s assessment (see video at 3:41-3:44). Secretary Hagel said: “I agree with his analysis…and I am glad he said those things on Sunday, because they are not things that have been said throughout th[ese] ten days or less, and they are important factors as to how they affect our military.”

That said, Sgt. Bergdahl was held captive for five years, and the US has not exactly been shy about killing suspected members of the Haqqani network during that period.

One more data point is potentially relevant. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, in claiming credit for the assault on the airport, stated that the operation “destroyed many of the fighter jets, American drones and other military planes which were in that special section ….” Whether or not the militants successfully destroyed American military aircraft, that seems to have been part of their intent. Hence a direct threat to the United States.

  

About the Author(s)

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). You can follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.