The United States has ended the use of so-called signature drone strikes in Pakistan, and the total number of incidents involving armed unmanned aerial vehicles there has plummeted, according to a new report from the Associated Press.
In gathering hours upon hours of footage of a given location, drones allow analysts to piece together “pattern of life” data, which are then examined for clues that suspected terrorists are using the area for planning or staging purposes. The evidence used to justify strikes against these locations — “signature strikes” — doesn’t include the appearance of known terrorists, but rather often circumstantial proof such as large gatherings of men between the ages of 16-55, where they’ve traveled while under surveillance and whether or not they were in the vicinity of known targets when the strike occurred.
According to the Obama administration, however, drone strikes carried out since the president took office have all been against high-level members of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, making these drones a valuable tool in the fight against terrorism. Despite that insistence, President Obama announced in May that the use of drone strikes and other applications of force in fighting terrorism will be streamlined to a more limited set of targets, with a higher level of scrutiny applied when determining them. That decision was codified in the administration’s new “playbook” on counterterrorism tactics around the same time. According to a letter from Attorney General Eric Holder to Congress, in future drone strikes “will impose the same standard for strikes on foreign enemies now used only for American citizens deemed to be terrorists.”
That choice has apparently resulted in a corresponding drop in strikes within Pakistan, long the primary theater for Central Intelligence Agency-flown unmanned aerial vehicles. So far in 2013, there have been only 16 drone strikes carried out in Pakistan, compared to estimates of a peak of 122 in 2010 and 48 over the course of last year. Obama’s pledge and the drop in strikes suggests that the controversial — and until recently unacknowledged — method of targeting potential terrorists for execution is winding down.
It’s the use of signature strikes that has been blamed for many of the civilian deaths attributed to drones — deaths that the Obama administration has so far yet to acknowledge outside of a few specific incidents. Despite that, according to the AP, the CIA “instructed to be more cautious with its attacks” including limiting signature strikes substantially. The Agency agreed to the curtailing, “feeling the drone program may be under threat from public scrutiny.” Pakistan is the one area where the CIA was determined to keep its control of the drones they fly, as reports surfaced that control of most drones would be transferred to the Pentagon.