Ending Drone Strikes in Pakistan? Not so fast

August 2, 2013

There is a timeline to end drone strikes in Pakistan, according to Secretary of State John Kerry on a visit to Pakistan.  He claimed President Obama has a “very real timeline” and, “We hope it’s going to be very very soon.”  Big news? Probably not.

I corresponded with journalists covering the event where Secretary Kerry made these remarks, which apparently came during an unscripted exchange. They relayed that a State Department spokesperson quickly tried to walk back the statement, a dynamic some news reports captured better than others.  After all, it’s a juicy headline.

Drone strikes are definitely an irritant to the U.S.-Pakistani relationship and we’ve already witnessed a decline in signature strikes, whereby American armed drones targeted individuals on the basis of observed behavior (such as a truckload of armed men heading toward the Afghan-Pakistani border) rather than after having identified and vetted them as known militants. It’s possible the US may yet work out some compromise with the Pakistanis to allow for more cooperation or provide another face saving measure. But we should be cautious about making too much of the Secretary’s statement given the venue, manner in which it was relayed and the fact that State quickly clarified that”In no way would we ever deprive ourselves of a tool to fight a threat if it arises.” Indeed, during the same news conference, the Secretary also defended the use of drone strikes, saying they will continue as long as the United States sees the need and arguing the militants they target also “violate the sovereignty” of Pakistan.