WASHINGTON — For more than a decade, the United States has been usingunmanned drones to strike at al-Qaida and Taliban militants in western parts of Pakistan that border on Afghanistan. The drone strikes, begun under President George W. Bush, dramatically increased after President Obama took office.
But now, more than four years later, the number of drone strikes is way down.
According to the New America Foundation, which tracks the strikes, there have only been 17 drone strikes this year so far. In the first eight months of last year, there were 36 strikes, while the number of drone strikes in the first eight months of 2011 and 2010 there were 56 and 57 respectively.
Under the Bush administration, there were 46 strikes in Pakistan from 2004 to 2008. The total number of strikes carried out by the Obama administration from 2009 to 2012 was 297.
Experts in Washington offer a variety of reasons for the shrinking number of drone strikes in recent months. Stephen Tankel, a counter-terrorism expert and an assistant professor at American University in Washington D.C., says one of the reasons is that there aren’t many high-value targets left to be hit in the Pakistan and Afghanistan region.
Tankel also says the pressure from Pakistan and international human rights organizations may be at play as well.
“I think there is certainly pressure from Pakistan, from human rights organizations, and quite frankly from elements within the U.S. that the drone strikes should be reduced, if not ended entirely,” he said.
During John Kerry’s first visit to Pakistan as the secretary of state in July of this year, officials in Islamabad urged him to stop the drone attacks. The issue of drone strikes was the top agenda item in every media engagement Kerry had in Pakistan.
Kerry defends drone use
In a TV interview, he suggested the drone strikes could end as soon “as we have eliminated most of the threat and continue to eliminate it.”
Some experts also say that since a major purpose of these drone strikes is to ensure that the U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan are not attacked from across the border in Pakistan, the U.S. will not need to use drones as frequently after the troop drawdown in 2014.
But other analysts don’t believe the strikes are going to end any time soon.
“There is no longer the strategic requirement to have quite so many strikes,” said Thomas Lynch, a research fellow at Washington’s National Defense University. “But it is not a renunciation of present or future use of them in the specific circumstances.”
Drone strikes have killed some high profile leaders of al-Qaida, the Taliban and Pakistan-based militant groups. But there is a downside to this strategy too, namely civilian deaths that could help recruit new members among militant groups – new members bent on avenging the deaths of their loved ones, say Washington experts who closely monitor the region.
“There are negative ramifications in terms of civilian casualties, which is a negative consequence in and of itself, and then of course the potential for drone strikes to motivate other militants to become involved on the battlefield,” said Tankel.
But he also believes the program has been effective, not just for the United States’ mission to eliminate the danger of attacks on NATO troops inside Afghanistan from across the border, but also for Pakistan.
Baitullah Mahsood, the leader of Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP) who was responsible for multiple terrorist attacks inside Pakistan, including being accused of the murder of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was killed in one such drone attack in August 2009.
Pakistan moves to end drone strikes
Even so, Pakistan is not at all comfortable with drone strikes and there is resentment against them at almost all levels of its society. In an election in May of this year, the political parties that took a strong stance against the drone strikes did well with the voters.
Now the newly elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is trying to make good on its election promise to end the strikes. Pakistan calls the drone attacks a violation of its sovereignty.
U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon echoed Pakistan’s sentiments during his recent visit to Islamabad when he condemned drone strikes.
“As I have often said, the use of armed drones, like any other weapon, should be subject to long-standing rules of international law, including international humanitarian law,” he said.
Drones said to be strategic requirement
But Thomas Lynch of the National Defense University said the issue of drone strikes should be considered in the proper context.
“The president has made it clear [regarding] the need and the strategic requirement to utilize the drone strikes against al-Qaida international senior leadership that basically was unfettered and unmenaced in western portions of Pakistan and even in eastern portions of Afghanistan,” he said.
“That had to be dealt with and dealt with sternly” he added, “and if the Pakistan forces were not able to take care of that threat, then America would have to.”
Pakistan, meanwhile, has asked Washington to provide it with drone technology so that it can strike militants on its own and avoid the controversy about sovereignty issues that arise when the U.S. fires drones onto Pakistani territory.
But according to many defense analysts, it is highly unlikely that Washington would give Pakistan the drone technology. Lynch says Washington has to consider regional sensitivities, especially “concerns by Pakistan’s neighbors both to the east in India and to the west in Afghanistan.”
Both countries are said to fear that drone technology could end up destabilizing regional security rather than helping Pakistan with its internal stability.
Both New Delhi and Kabul have repeatedly accused elements in Pakistan of not only supporting militant groups in in their respective countries, but also of directly orchestrating bloody attacks in India and Afghanistan, allegations that have been strongly denied by officials in Islamabad.
So while drone attacks have dramatically decreased in recent months, the issue remains a sticking point between Islamabad and Washington.
Experts in Washington say that while drone strikes play a major role in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, it would be a mistake to define the entire relationship around drone technology. They say ties between Washington and Islamabad go beyond just one issue and that future decisions on the drone program will likely be taken in the context of the larger U.S.-Pakistan agenda.