U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday publicly acknowledged that the CIA has been conducting unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strikes in Pakistan's tribal belt. President Obama, answering a question on the topic selected by his advisers, argued that UAV attacks can best target al Qaeda and its transnational jihadist allies with the least possible violation of a nation's sovereignty. Describing them as "pinpoint strikes," Obama explained that the UAV attacks are especially helpful in countries whose security forces cannot by themselves eliminate militants, and that the strikes offer an alternative to more intrusive military action by soldiers on the ground.
Reactions in the media have largely treated this as Washington's first acknowledgement of the UAV attacks. However, former CIA Director Leon Panetta — now the secretary of defense — said last year that the CIA was behind the strikes, which targeted Pakistan's northwestern tribal district. Essentially, though, U.S. involvement has been an open secret since the air strikes began some seven years ago.
The question is why the president chose to touch on the subject now. Electoral politics are part of the explanation: Obama wants to respond to Republican opponents who criticize what they see as his weakness on the foreign policy front — particularly as concerns radical Islamism — and wants to appear tough on terrorism.
But this is much more than a simple domestic political issue. Obama's statements become meaningful in the give-and-take of negotiations between the players in Southwest Asia. They speak to the shifts taking place in Pakistan, the evolving U.S.-Pakistani relationship, and the American need to continue to fight transnational jihadists in a post-NATO Afghanistan.
The UAV strikes began during the reign of former Pakistani military dictator President Gen. Pervez Musharraf. The strikes were performed less frequently at that time, and with the understanding of the Musharraf regime.
The United States intensified its campaign of UAV strikes soon after February 2008 elections brought the current civilian government to power, after Musharraf was forced to step down as military chief in November 2007. Islamabad initially allowed the strikes for the most part to continue unabated, even while complaining about them. Last year, a series of developments led to a sharp deterioration in U.S.-Pakistani relations.
By that time, it had become extremely difficult for the civilian government to ignore growing public anger over the UAV strikes, which a great many Pakistanis see as a violation of national sovereignty. When relations cratered after 24 Pakistani troops perished in a Nov. 26 attack by manned U.S. aircraft on a paramilitary border post, Islamabad halted military, intelligence and logistical cooperation with Washington. While there have since been some moves made to repair the relationship, Pakistan is trying to use the Nov. 24 incident to extract concessions from the United States.
One of Pakistan's sticking points is that the vague understanding between the administration of President George W. Bush and the Musharraf regime, on the basis of which the UAV strikes have been conducted, is no longer applicable. Islamabad demands to negotiate new rules of engagement — rules that are well-defined, transparent and approved by the Pakistani Parliament. Pakistan argues that the Americans cannot continue to engage in UAV strikes and expect the democratically elected government to remain stable, especially given the weakening of the Pakistani state in the decade since Sept 11, 2001.
President Obama was responding to this Pakistani insistence when he made those remarks. Given the shifts in the Pakistani political landscape, especially with the pressure building from an array of right-of-center (Islamist and nationalist) political forces in an election year, and the state of bilateral relations between the two countries, the matter will not likely be resolved soon. Pakistan is in a critical moment of transition from military to civilian rule, and Pakistani leaders feel they cannot simply allow the United States to conduct unilateral UAV strikes.
Forging any agreement on UAV strikes will be difficult, though, since the Pakistani government risks being seen as openly taking part in the violation of the country's national sovereignty. Conversely for the United States, UAV strikes constitute the most vital weapon in Washington's fight against transnational jihadist actors on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border, especially as the United States moves to draw down troops from Afghanistan. Meanwhile, neither Islamabad nor Kabul is positioned to take action against transnational jihadists operating on their soil. Therefore, this will become a major issue in not just U.S.-Pakistani dealings but also in talks with the Afghan Taliban. These have recently seen progress, but could be imperiled as Washington seeks to maintain a special operations and intelligence presence beyond the 2014 deadline for withdrawal.