Why Did Washington Wait So Long To Take Its Drone War to Baluchistan?


The Hellfire missile that incinerated Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mansour on May 21 set a major new precedent: It marked the first time we know of that a U.S. drone strike was used in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan.

The United States has executed more than 400 drone strikes in Pakistan, according to New America Foundation data. The vast majority of them have occurred in a limited part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA. The others have hit nearby Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Baluchistan is an unforgiving place. It is bone-dry, water-starved, deeply impoverished, and home to a festering ethno-separatist insurgency that prompts brutal Pakistani military crackdowns.

Baluchistan has also long served as the sanctuary for the Quetta Shura—the top leadership of the Afghan Taliban (Quetta is the province’s capital).  Baluchistan became the adopted home of the group’s leadership back in 2001, when the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan drove it out of that country.

Pakistan’s security establishment has always allowed the group to make itself at home in Baluchistan. The military and intelligence communities have long viewed the Afghan Taliban as useful, given its ability to push back against Indian influence in Afghanistan. Additionally, Pakistan, fearing (correctly) the onset of heightened instability and political volatility in Afghanistan amid the foreign troop withdrawal, has wished to maintain links with the Taliban as a hedging strategy. Finally, providing a sanctuary to the Quetta Shura on its soil has enabled the Pakistani security establishment to enjoy a measure of leverage over the Taliban

A Strong Rationale for an Earlier Strike

The Afghan Taliban’s long-standing presence in Baluchistan raises a logical question: Why did U.S. drones not target the group in Baluchistan earlier on, particularly between 2009 and 2014, when the drone war was in full force and U.S. troops were fighting an aggressive campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan? In other words, why was Baluchistan – the political and military headquarters of an enemy organization – off limits to drones until May 21, 2016?

There are many good reasons to pose this question. From 2001 to 2011, as I have written previously for War on the Rocks, the CIA reportedly had a significant presence in Baluchistan. Specifically, it stationed operatives at Shamsi airbase, which the agency used for intelligence gathering. Additionally, after the drone war expanded in 2008, FATA-destined drones were launched from Shamsi. Employees of the Xe company (formerly known as Blackwater) loaded the missiles onto these drones.

In effect, the Americans had the capacity and ability to drone the Afghan Taliban in Baluchistan well before last month. So why didn’t they?

A We-Don’t-Want-To-Offend Argument That Doesn’t Hold Water

One might argue that Washington didn’t want to upset its delicate diplomatic relationship with Islamabad.

In 2009, with the recently inaugurated President Obama ramping up U.S. involvement in the Afghanistan war, Washington sought to broaden its relationship with Pakistan beyond hard security issues. This policy was motivated in part by a desire to build trust with Pakistan to help get its support in Afghanistan. This effort led to a major development assistance package in 2009, known as the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill, and to a new strategic dialogue—focused on security and non-security issues—that launched in 2010. At that time, taking the drone war to Baluchistan could have ruined this progress.

Another covert option managed to end this process: the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad in May 2011. The raid was preceded, several months earlier, by another diplomacy-damaging debacle, and again tied to covert activities—the arrest of a CIA spy for shooting and killing two Pakistanis in the city of Lahore. Later, in November 2011, NATO airstrikes accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers stationed on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, effectively bringing bilateral relations to a standstill. Back then, with U.S.-Pakistan relations in deep crisis, an American drone strike on a top Pakistani strategic asset could well have produced a full-scale rupture in ties. Such an outcome would have been deleterious for Washington, which prefers to have a workable relationship—even a tenuous and troubled one—with a militancy-riven, nuclear-armed nation like Pakistan than a nonexistent one.

All this said, arguing that the Americans didn’t drone Baluchistan because they didn’t want to upset the Pakistanis doesn’t hold water. Simply put, Washington doesn’t let Pakistani sensitivities get in the way of its pursuit of critical national security objectives.  (That said, in some cases, Washington seeks to respect these sensitivities in order to help achieve these objectives.)The Bin Laden raid is Exhibit A. Recall as well the CIA’s 2013 droning of Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, who orchestrated a deadly assault on a CIA base in Afghanistan in 2009 and continued to threaten attacks on the United States. Mehsud was droned at the very moment when his group was planning to start peace talks with the Pakistani government. (To be sure, however, the Pakistani military, which likely opposed these talks, may have given its tacit support for the hit on Mehsud.) Furthermore, the Americans have not hesitated to take out close assets of the Pakistani state. According to data from the Long War Journal, about a dozen Haqqani Network commanders and several Afghan Taliban leaders have been droned in the tribal belt since 2008. (The higher number of targeted Haqqani leaders than Afghan Taliban ones can likely be explained by the fact that most Afghan Taliban leaders are based in Baluchistan, not the tribal belt; more Afghan Taliban foot soldiers than leaders use FATA as a sanctuary.)

The bottom line is there’s no reason to believe the United States would pass up a golden opportunity to take out a leader of the Taliban insurgency simply for the sake of diplomatic niceties.

A Better Explanation:  Baluchistan Wasn’t the Main Priority

A better explanation is that the United States held off in Baluchistan to avoid Pakistani retaliation that could have jeopardized critical U.S. security objectives in FATA.

Keep in mind that back in 2004, at the very start of the U.S. drone war, the CIA had concluded an agreement with Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, which dictated where in Pakistan drone strikes could be directed. Per the terms of the agreement, the CIA’s ”flight boxes” were allowed to include FATA, but never Baluchistan. In effect, any drone strikes in Baluchistan would have amounted to violating a secret and sensitive intelligence agreement, with potentially damaging consequences for Washington.

Indeed, those who have studied U.S. covert operations in Pakistan contend that combating al-Qaeda and the broader militancy threat in the tribal belt was a bigger priority than targeting the Taliban in Baluchistan, and that undertaking the latter could imperil the former. Mark Mazzetti is a journalist and author of The Way of the Knife, a book on Washington’s covert wars in Pakistan and elsewhere. “My sense,” he told me, “is that overwhelmingly it was concerns that pushing to do drone flights in Baluchistan would so anger the Pakistanis that they would cut off access to the FATA and therefore the biggest threat would not be dealt with.”

Nonetheless, the U.S. military did explore the possibility of drone overflights in Baluchistan, says Mazzetti. Even the CIA, which largely controlled the drone war and was more fixated on the al-Qaeda threat in FATA than on Taliban sanctuaries in Baluchistan, raised this possibility with Pakistan. However, it was “generally a non-starter,” according to Mazzetti. He says this was because, among other things, Pakistan didn’t want drones flying over sensitive Pakistani nuclear installations there. Pakistan’s first nuclear tests, in 1998, were staged in the Chagai district of Baluchistan.

In fact, one former senior U.S. government official who oversaw policy in Pakistan during the early years of the Obama administration told me that Baluchistan was “super off limits” less because it served as a sanctuary for state assets and more because of how significant and sensitive the province was for Pakistan’s military. In addition to nuclear facilities, the Army had (and has) a heavy presence there because of the separatist insurgency. Additionally, the former official said, Quetta is a “hotbed for spies.” The last thing the Pakistanis wanted was an American presence—much less drone overflights— in Baluchistan. A U.S. request several years ago to establish a consulate in Quetta was quickly rejected, according to the former official. Little wonder, then, that the CIA’s “flight boxes”—which reflected  levels of Pakistani permissibility on the geographics of drone targeting— never included Baluchistan.

Why Go to Baluchistan Now?

Many observers have cited the changing nature of U.S.-Pakistan relations as a chief reason why Washington finally decided to take the drone war to Baluchistan. In effect, the United States has lost patience with Pakistan for continuing to harbor top Afghan Taliban leaders and not convincing them to join a peace process with Kabul. This explanation makes good sense.

However, based on the analysis above, two other possibilities may help explain why the United States droned Mansour in Baluchistan when it did. One is that the United States has concluded that the militant threat in FATA is not as urgent as it was several years ago—an appraisal that allows it to redirect its attention to Baluchistan. To be sure, the al-Qaeda threat, as I have written previously for War on the Rocks, remains very real in the tribal areas and the broader Afghanistan-Pakistan region. However, multiple developments in recent years illustrate that al-Qaeda’s center of gravity is shifting away from FATA.  Consider the Pakistani military offensives and relentless U.S. drone strikes in FATA that have degraded the capacities of al-Qaeda and its allies; the emergence of potent al-Qaeda affiliates in the Middle East and North Africa; and, most recently, indications that some members of al-Qaeda’s central leadership are relocating to the Middle East to help Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, plan for a future emirate.

In effect, Washington now has a stronger incentive to focus its crosshairs on the Taliban leadership sanctuaries in Baluchistan—and especially amid increasingly alarming ground realities in Afghanistan, which play out against the backdrop of a long-gone foreign combat presence. These include an intensifying Taliban insurgency that controls more territory now than at any time since 2001, and which produced a record number of civilian casualties last year. Prospects for peace talks, meanwhile, have never been lonelier.

Additionally, a diminished threat in FATA means that Washington has less to fear from potential Pakistani retaliation—because cutting off access to FATA would not be the devastating blow to U.S. objectives that it would have been several years ago. Furthermore, other possible Pakistani retaliatory tactics—including closing off NATO supply routes, known as ground lines of communication, or GLOCS, to Afghanistan (which snaked through Baluchistan)—would not be as damaging for U.S. interests because of its scaled down presence in Afghanistan. There is an irony here: In years past, the United States may have refrained from droning the Quetta Shura in Baluchistan so that it could ensure it would receive sufficient military supplies …to fight the Quetta Shura’s foot soldiers in Afghanistan.

In essence, Pakistani leverage over Washington has declined, and this reduced leverage gives the United States greater incentives to do what was once prohibitively risky.

A second factor that may explain Washington’s new willingness to go to Baluchistan is that the strike on Mansour was carried out by the Pentagon, and not as a covert CIA operation. In a statement issued the day of the strike, the Pentagon explicitly took credit for the operation. Most drone strikes in Pakistan have been carried out by the CIA and targeted FATA, the agency’s main area of focus in Pakistan. The Pentagon and U.S. military have been more focused on the Taliban. In this regard, the United States may have taken its drone war to Baluchistan simply because those most eager to do so finally were granted the opportunity by the White House.

Was the May 21 strike in Baluchistan a one-off or could more be forthcoming? Many analyses, including a recent one for War on the Rocks, contend that it was a one-off operation. This may well be true. President Obama did suggest that killing Mansour was simply meant to pave the way for the Taliban to agree to reconciliation talks with Kabul.

Still, shifts in U.S. strategic thinking in South Asia—from a less patient U.S. policy toward Pakistan to changing assessments of which militant sanctuaries in Pakistan pose the greatest threats to U.S. interests and personnel in Afghanistan—suggest that further strikes cannot be ruled out.

In effect, the first drone strike in Baluchistan may not have been the last.


Michael Kugelman is the senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He can be reached at michael.kugelman@wilsoncenter.org and on Twitter @michaelkugelman.

Image: Beluchistan, Flickr, CC