CREDIT: Flickr user Diablo Azul
For the first time in more than two years, Pakistan saw a month without an American drone strike, according to the drone-counters at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ).
January 2014 marks the first full month since December 2011 that the United States did not use an unmanned aerial vehicle to fire at a target inside Pakistan, an pause that has so far continued throughout February. The gap between the last strike, on Christmas Day, and today is the longest since the 42 day break between April 17 and May 29 of last year.
The lull in drone strikes coheres with a long-term decline in both drone strikes and their resulting civilian casualties, both of which appear to have peaked in 2010. Since then, the number of strikes on Pakistani soil has declined steadily every year.
The reason for the recent pause in drone strikes isn’t clear. According to BIJ’s Jack Serle, “breaks in the campaign in the past have usually reflected a deterioration in diplomatic relations between the US and Pakistan.” The December 2011 and April-May 2013 stoppages, for instance, coincided with major issues in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship: the murder of several Pakistani citizens by CIA contractor Raymond Davis and a Pakistani election where criticism of the drone campaign played a significant role, respectively.
However, it’s not obvious what would be causing a similar problem today. There hasn’t been an incident between the United States and Pakistan on that level of late, and, by one metric (high-level official meetings), there’s been something of an uptick in recent relations.
Another possible explanation is that the Administration is, for whatever reason, winding down aggressive use of drones in Pakistan. Last year, President Obama committed to scaling down the targeted killing program, arguing that “we cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root,” remarks he echoed in this year’s State of the Union. Secretary of State John Kerry has been even more conclusive, saying during a 2013 visit to Pakistanthat “the program will end,” purportedly “soon,” because “we have eliminated most of the threat.” It is possible, then, that the break in strikes is simply a reflection of the broader decline in targeted killings. The less U.S. policymakers rely on the strategy, the less frequent strikes are likely to be.
Counting drone strikes and (particularly) casualties is notoriously difficult. Four different major organizations, including BIJ, attempt to tally strikes and deaths from same, and have come to somewhat divergent conclusions (see Chapter 7 here for a clear breakdown). Recently leaked Pakistani government records of targeted, obtained by BIJ, contradict several official U.S. government statements on the strikes.
Pakistan is not the only place where the U.S. targeted killing program operates; strikes also take place in Somalia and Yemen, though the pace in the latter has also declined of late. On January 27, a U.S. aircraft fired a missile at an alleged leader of the Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab.