Analysis: New rules in play as CIA drones return to Pakistan skies

A ground creman walks in front of a US Air Force Reaper as it sits on the tarmac in the desert lanscape of an air base in Afghanistan

This article was published some hours before the CIA resumed its drone strikes in Pakistan on January 10, killing up to four people.

Update: In the video below, Chris Woods speaks to Russia Today about the return of drones to Pakistan.

The current pause in CIA drone strikes in Pakistan is now the longest of Barack Obama’s presidency.

It is 55 days (and counting) since a deadly attack on November 17 2011 killed at least seven people.

According to the Bureau’s extensive database on drone strikes, the last gap of similar length was in 2008. If things continue in this vein, that record will be broken next Monday (January 16).

There was a pause of 59 days between March 16 and May 14 2008 under George W Bush; and a 57-day halt between December 3 2007 and January 29 2008. Before then US drone strikes were highly intermittent, often occurring months apart.

Strategy shift
The current break in drone strikes is enforced. After NATO accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November, Islamabad effectively shut down the drone campaign.

Weeks later the Long War Journal confirmed that all CIA attacks were officially on hold: ‘There is concern that another hit will push US-Pakistan relations past the point of no return. We don’t know how far we can push them, how much more they are willing to tolerate.’ an official told LWJ.

The break coincided with a major policy reappraisal by Washington – and it has given Islamabad room to refocus on its own strategic needs. In the coming weeks CIA drone attacks are expected to resume in Pakistan’s tribal areas. But according to leaks and hints, there are likely to be far less strikes, and far fewer casualties.

The Bureau’s records show that CIA drones struck 75 times in 2011. Some 470 to 655 people were killed in the attacks, the majority of them anonymous alleged militants. Among the dead were between 53 and 126 civilians, according to credible reports. Despite these reports, the CIA continues to claim that it has killed no civilians since May 2010.

In Pakistan drone strikes are now a major political issue, causing wide-ranging fury. The nation’s prime minister, president and army chief all publicly condemned the attacks in 2011 (whatever the reality of any private agreements between Islamabad and Washington).

Yet the CIA seemed impervious to such criticism. US officials were claiming in November that al Qaeda and its allies were on the run in Pakistan. The Washington Post quoted a source who insisted that al Qaeda was operationally ineffective and ‘down to two leaders’ – and that strikes had to continue to deliver the knockout blow.

‘Now is not the time to let up the pressure,’ an anonymous official told the paper. ‘We’ve got an opportunity to keep them down, and letting up now could allow them to regenerate.’ But four days later NATO’s disastrous strike brought the drone strikes to a halt.

A change of policy
The CIA’s confidence did not extend to all parts of the Obama administration. Diplomatic and military sources began to semi-openly criticise the agency for placing short-term objectives ahead of the US’s long term strategic needs. US policy began to shift, helped by a change of leadership at the CIA.

As the Bureau was the first to point out on October 27, a significant shift was taking place away from targeting low-level fighters in Pakistan. A week later the Wall Street Journal concurred, reporting that a White House review had resulted in a strategy change. From now on, the targeting of large groups of alleged low-ranking militants was off the table. An anonymous senior official said: ‘The bar has been raised. Inside CIA, there is a recognition you need to be damn sure it’s worth it.

Pakistan also took advantage of the halt to insist that the US return to the negotiating table. An early leak indicated the Pakistanis had high ambitions: in return for resuming drone strikes ‘Pakistan wants complete knowledge of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) imprint in Pakistan,’ it was suggested.

In recent days a more achievable plan has been mooted. According to the Express Tribune, US and Pakistani negotiators are close to a deal.

Pakistani negotiators had convinced their American counterparts on at least a couple of conditions: First, the drone strikes should not be as frequent as they were in 2010 and 2011. And second, the CIA should narrow the [area] the aircraft were targeting.

A deal is close
Leaks from Washington sources published in the mainstream American media also appear to suggest that an agreement is imminent. United States officials have told the New York Times that according to the terms of a new deal, ‘the US will be forced to restrict drone strikes; limit the number of its spies and soldiers on the ground; and spend more to transport supplies through Pakistan to allied troops in Afghanistan.’

US intelligence agencies are now pushing for a swift resumption of the strikes. The New York Times also reported at the weekend that al Qaeda was regrouping in the tribal areas. This is presumably the same ‘operationally ineffective two men’ that the same paper reported al Qaeda had been reduced to only weeks beforehand.

It seems likely that CIA attacks will resume imminently in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Yet the combined impact of domestic pressure from within the Obama administration – and Islamabad’s insistence on new ground rules – should mean that 2012 will see a very different approach to the drone war from the agency.