One of the central campaign platforms of newly elected Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif was a promise to curb the use of U.S. drones on Pakistani territory. Indeed there has been a sharp reduction in the number of drone attacks conducted in Pakistan this year compared to the last three.
But until Islamabad cracks down more aggressively on groups attacking U.S. interests in the region and beyond, drones will remain an essential tool for fighting global terrorism. Numbering over three hundred and fifty since 2004, drone strikes in Pakistan have killed more than two dozen Al Qaeda operatives and hundreds of militants targeting U.S. and coalition forces.
President Obama made clear in his May 23 speech at the National Defense University that Washington would continue to use drones in Pakistan’s tribal border areas to support stabilization efforts in neighboring Afghanistan, even as it seeks to increase transparency and tighten targeting of the drone program in the future. Obama also defended the use of drones from a legal and moral standpoint, noting that by preemptively striking at terrorists, many innocent lives had been saved.
The most compelling evidence of the efficacy of the drone program came from Osama bin Laden himself, who shortly before his death contemplated moving Al Qaeda operatives from Pakistan into forested areas of Afghanistan in an attempt to escape the drones’ reach, according to Peter Bergen, renowned author of Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad.
How to Reduce the Need for Drones
The continuation of drone strikes signals U.S. frustration with Pakistan’s unwillingness to crack down consistently and comprehensively on groups that find sanctuary in Pakistan’s tribal areas. There continue to be close ties between the Pakistan military and the Taliban-allied Haqqani Network, which attacks U.S. forces in Afghanistan and undermines the overall U.S. and NATO strategy there.
The most recent U.S. drone attack inside Pakistani territory occurred last week against militants from the Haqqani Network located in North Waziristan, along the border with Afghanistan. In early June, drone missiles also targeted a group of fighters in Pakistan that were preparing to cross over into Afghanistan. On both occasions, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry condemned the attacks as counterproductive and said they raised serious questions about human rights.
No doubt a better alternative to the drones would be Pakistani action against terrorist sanctuaries. But Pakistan has stonewalled repeated U.S. requests for operations against the Haqqani network.
In addition to continuing drone strikes as necessary, the U.S. should further condition military aid to Pakistan based on its willingness to crack down on the Haqqani Network. In early June, the House of Representatives approved language in the FY 2014 National Defense Authorization Act that conditions reimbursement of Coalition Support Funds (CSF) pending Pakistani actions against the Haqqani network. Hopefully, the language will be retained in the final bill.
The United States provides CSF funds to reimburse Pakistan for the costs associated with stationing some one hundred thousand Pakistani troops along the border with Afghanistan. Pakistan has received over $10 billion in CSF funding over the last decade. One must question the worth of having troops stationed in this region if they refuse to go after one of the most dangerous terrorist groups.
Details of the relationship between the Pakistan military and the Haqqani Network are laid out in a recent book, Fountainhead of Jihad: The Haqqani Nexus, 1973–2012 by Vahid Brown and Don Rassler. The book highlights that Pakistan is actively assisting the Haqqani network the same way it has over the last twenty years, through training, tactical field advice, financing and material support. The assistance, the authors note, helps to sustain the Haqqani group and enhance its effectiveness on the battlefield.
Drones Help Pakistan
It is no secret that the drone strikes often benefit the Pakistani state. On May 29, for example, a drone missile strike killed the number two leader of the Pakistani Taliban (also referred to as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP), Waliur Rehman. The TTP has killed hundreds of Pakistani security forces and civilians in terrorist attacks throughout the country since its formation in 2007. Furthermore, the group conducted a string of suicide attacks and targeted assassinations against Pakistani election workers, candidates, and party activists in the run-up to the May elections, declaring a goal of killing democracy.
Complicating the picture even further is the fact that Pakistan’s support for the Haqqani network indirectly benefits the Pakistani Taliban. The Haqqanis play a pivotal role in the region by simultaneously maintaining ties with Al Qaeda, Pakistani intelligence and anti-Pakistan groups like the TTP. With such a confused and self-defeating Pakistani strategy, Washington has no choice but to rely on the judicious use of drone strikes.
The U.S. will need to keep a close eye on the tribal border areas, where there is a nexus of terrorist groups that threaten not only U.S. interests but also the stability of the Pakistani state. Given that Pakistan is home to more international terrorists than almost any other country and, at the same time, has one of the fastest growing nuclear arsenals, the country will remain of vital strategic interest for Washington for many years to come.
Though the drone issue will continue to be a source of tension in the relationship, it is doubtful that it alone would derail ties. The extent to which the United States will continue to rely on drone strikes ultimately depends on Islamabad’s willingness to develop more decisive and comprehensive counterterrorism policies that include targeting groups like the Haqqani Network.
- Lisa Curtis is a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The National Interest