The Central Intelligence Agency’s campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan has been put on hold since at least Christmas, according to the Associated Press, possibly lending credence to the Obama administration’s previously declared commitment to winding down the targeted killing program.
Earlier this year, January marked the first month since December 2011 where no missiles were launched from American unmanned vehicles at targets in Pakistan. That month has now turned into five, marking the longest period without strikes since the peak of the campaign to target leaders of Al Qaeda hiding in Pakistan’s western territory in 2010. Prior to this, according to the Bureau for Investigative Journalism (BIJ), the most recent gap in strikes was 42 days which “coincided with Pakistan’s general election, in which drones were a major campaigning point, and also with the run-up to President Obama’s speech at the National Defense University, in which he announced new policy guidelines around covert lethal actions.”
While U.S. officials would not confirm to the Associated Press directly that the drone strike program has ended, they gave several reasons as to why the slowdown is occurring. “Many of the senior al-Qaida figures in Pakistan have been killed,” the AP cited American officials as telling them. “Those who remain are much harder to target because they are avoiding mobile phones and traveling with children, benefiting from stricter targeting rules designed to prevent civilian casualties.”
Those new rules — which raised the standards for conducting a drone strike but remain classified — were put into place last year amid heavy criticism of the targeted killing campaign, of which drone strikes are just one part. The result has been a sharp decline in the number of confirmed civilian casualties from drone strikes, though the exact numbers remain uncertain. According to the BIJ, which tracks drone strikes, since 2004 there have been 383 CIA drone strikes into Pakistan. Of those, 332 have been under the Obama administration.
Preparations for U.S. combat troops to withdraw from Afghanistan also appears to be slowing the frequency of drone strikes into neighboring Pakistan. With only 9,800 troops planned to remain after this year, the need to launch “force protection” strikes against gathering militants plotting attacks is also falling. The CIA, which runs the program in Pakistan, is also accelerating its own withdrawal from Afghanistan according to reports. This in turn is spurred on by the closure of bases throughout Afghanistan as the military withdraws — and from which the armed drones are launched and maintained.
Pakistan isn’t the only place where armed drones operate, however, with reported strikes taking place against militants in Yemen and Somalia. In those theaters, the military runs the operations rather than the CIA. While reports have for months now indicated that the administration is considering moving all drone operations from the CIA to the Pentagon, that proposal seems to have hit a wall recently. According to a report from the Los Angeles Times, debate is growing over whether the military will be better than the CIA in preventing casualties, citing a strike in Yemen that mistakenly killed civilians in a wedding convoy.
In a speech last year on national security at the National Defense University, President Obama touched on the controversy surrounding the use of armed drones, though not addressing Pakistan as one of the areas where they operate by name. At the time, Obama insisted the use of drones and the targeted killing program itself are legal, but in need of greater restraint. In his commencement speech to graduating cadets at West Point on Wednesday, Obama briefly returned to this pledge. “[A]s I said last year, in taking direct action, we must uphold standards that reflect our values,” Obama said. “That means taking strikes only when we face a continuing, imminent threat, and only where there is near certainty of no civilian casualties. For our actions should meet a simple test – we must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield.”
“I also believe we be more transparent about both the basis for our actions, and the manner in which they are carried out – whether it is drone strikes, or training partners,” Obama continued on Wednesday. Despite that, however, the use of armed drones has remained extremely opaque and cloaked in layers of secrecy. A proposed bipartisan amendment to the pending Intelligence Authorization Act in Congress would at least open up the number of civliians and combatants killed by armed drones, requiring an annual report of those numbers that would be retroactive for the last five years.
“An annual report will provide a modest, but important, measure of transparency and oversight regarding the use of drones,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), one of the amendment’s sponsors, said in a statement. “We must be transparent and accountable, both with ourselves and with the world, and narrow the perception gap between what really happens, and what is reported or assumed.”