Secretary of State John Kerry, on a visit to Pakistan to meet with the new government, announced on Thursday that drone strikes within the country will end “soon.”
Kerry was making his first visit to Pakistan following the election of Naraz Sharif as Prime Minister, in hopes of starting off on a good foot with the new government. The relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan has proven fraught at times, particularly surrounding the American use of armed drones to target suspected terrorists and militants on Pakistani soil. While multiple governments in Islamabad have publicly decried the drone strikes, evidence exists that the Pakistani Army and elements within the government have given tacit support for their use.
In either case, the drones flights have often been the basis for a chilly relationship between the two countries when it comes to counterterrorism efforts. That may change, however, in the near future according to Kerry. “The program will end as we have eliminated most of the threat and continue to eliminate it,” Kerry said in an interview with Pakistan TV. “I think the president has a very real timeline and we hope it’s going to be very, very soon.”
When asked about Kerry’s comments, the State Department was unable to provide any further details about when that would be. “We’re all realistic that there is a threat that remains,” State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf said at the daily press briefing, adding there there is “no exact timeline to provide.”
Kerry made sure to emphasize that his visit goes beyond security issues. Speaking at a press conference with Sartaj Aziz, Sharif’s top security and foreign affairs advisor, the secretary was able to confirm that the Strategic Dialogue with Pakistan, on hold since 2010 over the raid in the Pakistani city Abottabad that killed Osama bin Laden, would resume. “I want to emphasize the [US-Pakistan] relationship is not defined simply by the threats that we face,” Kerry said. “It is not only a relationship about combatting terrorism. It is about supporting the people of Pakistan and particularly helping at this critical moment for Pakistan’s economic revival.”
“With respect to the drone policy, we’ve had an ongoing dialogue with our friends in Pakistan regarding all aspects of our relationship, our shared interests, including, obviously, the counterterrorism cooperation,” Kerry went on. “We must define our effort not as a boundless global war on terror, but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America,” he added, quoting President Obama’s counterterrorism speech at the National Defense University in May.
Kerry also firmly denied claims that the use of drone strikes violates Pakistan’s sovereignty. “I would simply remind all of our friends that somebody like an al-Qaida leader like al-Zawahiri is violating the sovereignty of this country,” he told reporters. “And when they attack people in mosques and blow up people in villages and in marketplaces, they are violating the sovereignty of the country.”
Kerry’s statements line up with those of former Obama administration officials, including former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and ex-top Pentagon lawyer Jeh Johnson. “We’ve decimated [core Al Qaeda’s] leadership as a result of those operations.,” Panetta said in January. “So you know, my view of it is, you know, it’s not something that we’re going to have to continue to use forever.”
Drone strikes within Pakistan have long been blamed as the cause of civilian deaths within Pakistan, the total number of which remains under contention. Recent reports, however, indicate that the U.S. will be ending its controversial use of so-called “signature strikes” — where unknown military-aged men who fit certain life patterns are considered viable targets — within the country. The number of drone strikes in general in Pakistan has also seen a drop over the course of 2013 in comparison to previous years.