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CIA Suspends Drone Strikes in Pakistan: National Security vs. State Sovereignty

Sources within the US government recently confirmed that the CIA has suspended drone missile strikes in Pakistan in an attempt to repair the badly damaged relations between the two countries, which have decayed further in the wake of a NATO airstrike

which resulted in the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers.

Relations between the US and Pakistan have been tense since the May 2, 2011 US Navy SEAL raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbotabad which culminated in the death of the al-Qaeda leader. Senior Pakistani officials expressed disapproval of the US military presence within Pakistan’s borders and threatened that any further encroachment of Pakistan’s sovereignty would “warrant a review on the level of… cooperation with the United States.” However, the successful assault on bin Laden’s compound emboldened the US to step up the rate of unmanned drone strikes within Pakistan, nearly tripling the number of strikes in an eleven day span after the death of bin Laden.

In addition to targeting known “high value target” insurgents, the scope of drone strikes in Pakistan was expanded by President George W. Bush, who in 2008 granted the CIA authority to target unnamed militants whose “pattern of life” suggested they were involved with terrorist groups. President Obama further expanded the CIA’s authority to conduct drone attacks in Pakistan, allowing them to “fire at will” at targets without obtaining outside authorization so long as the targets were within pre-approved zones near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Pakistan has long opposed these strikes as violations of its national sovereignty and insists that it should be included in the target selection and mission operation of the drone strikes. However, the US has repeatedly refused to include Pakistan in the planning and execution of the strikes, citing national security concerns and concerns over the possibility of informants within the Pakistani government tipping off terrorists to future strikes.

The US unmanned drone strike program has long been controversial. Though the strikes have successfully targeted known terrorists such as Janbaz Zadran, a top Haqqani militant commander who had planned raids on US forces in Afghanistan, there have been reports of accidental casualties among civilians and Pakistani military forces, as well. The debate between US national security and Pakistani national sovereignty is frequently contentious, and though Pakistan has long been content to make toothless protests about US drone strikes within its borders, the recent incident in which NATO fire killed 24 soldiers at a Pakistani military post has given Pakistan’s protests more vigor.

The CIA suspension of drone strikes is reportedly at least six weeks old, and comes at a time when the US is reconsidering its general policy regarding drone strikes in Pakistan. The CIA’s authority to target any suspected militant within certain free-fire zones near the Afghan border has arguably caused more harm than good, as the low-level terrorist targets killed by the strikes are often easily replaced, and the resentment generated by the incursion into Pakistani territory and the collateral civilian casualties have created problems for the pro-US administration of President Asif Ali Zardari among his constituents. The Obama administration has relied far more on drone strikes in its campaign against terrorism than did the Bush administration, and has generally given the CIA and Department of Defense more leeway in conducting these strikes, but as it prepares to wind down troop levels in Afghanistan, many in the Administration are questioning the efficacy of continuing to rely so heavily on killing terrorists outside the US as the primary method of combating the threat terrorist groups pose to US national security.

The United States has, from the start of the War of Terror, maintained that its interest in protecting itself from international terrorism justifies lethal response against enemy combatants who are engaged in planning or carrying out acts of terrorism against the US or US forces, even if that means carrying out such a response within the sovereign boundaries of another nation. The US has accordingly carried out drone strikes not only in Afghanistan, where we are engaged in armed conflict, but also in Pakistan and Yemen, with whom we are not at war. The nature of the war on terrorism, argue government national security analysts, is such that legitimate enemy belligerents (“enemy combatants,” to use the Bush Administration’s parlance) may be targeted wherever they are planning strikes against the US, be that Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, or elsewhere.

However, despite its previous justification for the legality of drone strikes within the sovereign borders of other nations, evidence that the Obama Administration is rethinking its position on “fire at will” drone strikes may yet rekindle the debate over unmanned drone strikes. Despite previously ignoring Pakistan’s protestations of sovereignty, the CIA’s recent suspension of strikes suggests that the US can and

does take national sovereignty issues under consideration when deciding whether to use lethal force against militants located in another country’s territory. That is likely the reason that drone strikes have only been carried out in nations with heavily US-dependent governments, such as Pakistan, who are less able to effectively assert their authority against US incursions into their territorial boundaries. The United States should take care not to take the graces of nations like Pakistan, whose US-friendly governments have long put on a public show of protesting US influence while quietly turning a blind eye to US interference within their borders, for granted. As the tattered relationship between Pakistan and the US attests, even the most stalwart US allies have their limits when it comes to accepting the “collateral damage” that is inevitable in the US war against terror.

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