US to Reduce Drone Program in Pakistan – But Does Pakistan “Agree”?

A must-read story in the Wall Street Journal this morning details a “general agreement” between the US and Pakistan to “narrow” the drone program to a short list of high-level terrorists with an “aim to end” the program by the time Prime Minister Sharif’s first term in office expires in 2018. (The sources for the report are anonymous US officials.)

Does this “new approach” reflect the Pakistan government’s consent? And how does a statement by Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs today correspond to these reports?

It is important to note that the WSJ story comes on the heels of yesterday’s Washington Post report that the “Obama administration has sharply curtailed drone strikes in Pakistan after a request from the government there for restraint as it pursues peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban” (my emphasis).

So, did Sharif’s government ask for restraint or reduction—rather than termination–of drone strikes? And does the tapering off approach with a timetable for termination satisfy Pakistan’s demand to bring the program to cessation?

The WSJ reports that “Senior U.S. officials characterized the timetable as a ‘general agreement’ within the Obama administration and between the U.S. and Pakistani governments.”

That said, other passages in the story suggest that Sharif’s government has demanded an immediate cessation:

The changes fall short of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s demands for an immediate freeze in drone strikes.

In meetings last month in Washington, top Pakistani officials repeated their demand that the U.S. suspend the drone program.
U.S. officials told their Pakistani counterparts during those meetings that an immediate suspension wasn’t possible ….

It is unclear, from the WSJ report, whether (a) these “demands” by the Pakistan government simply preceded the “general agreement” reached after negotiations with the US or (b) the Pakistan government’s demands persist and thus no true “agreement” has been reached.

On Thursday, Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs appeared to answer that quandary in terms that suggest the latter. A question was posed to the Ministry’s spokesperson in light of the Washington Post story. Here is the full exchange (my emphasis):

Question
It has been stated that the US has reduced the frequency of drone attacks on Pakistan’s request during the proposed dialogue between Pakistan and Taliban. As and when did it happen?

Answer
Our position on the drone strikes is very clear. We have stated it from this forum many a times that drone strikes are unacceptable. They kill innocent people in Pakistan and they violate Pakistan’s sovereignty. Pakistan has consistently worked with the US. We have demanded that these violations of our territory should stop. We have been engaged with the international community. We have built international consensus and now you see that this issue is being discussed by human rights organizations, lawyers’ organizations internationally and it was taken up by the UN, a special rapporteur was appointed who presented the report that looks into the question of legality of drone strikes, then the United Nations General Assembly resolution talked about it. We have said that we intend to take this issue to the Human Rights Council in March as well. So there is no question of Pakistan requesting the US to cut down on the number of strikes. Our position has been clear. We want complete stop.

At least in terms of its official public position, the Pakistani government still apparently opposes the current drone program—even the tapering off approach.

A skeptic might contend that the statement by the Foreign Ministry is consistent with agreeing to a “complete stop” pursuant to a timetable. However, it is obviously inconsistent to reach an “agreement” with the US on the drone program and, at the same time, bring a complaint to the United Nations still challenging that program.

For international lawyers, a lack of consent of course does not necessarily end the analysis. The second-order question would be whether the US still has the sovereign right to pursue high-level terrorists who directly threaten the United States when the Pakistan government is unwilling or unable to address the problem. 

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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.