Pakistan off limits for US drone
rules By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON - As Barack Obama renews his
lease on the White House for another four years,
his administration is debating how best to respond
to a growing internal and public controversy over
his first term's non-battlefield counter-terrorist
weapon of choice: armed drones.
months, senior administration officials have
reportedly been haggling over the terms of a
so-called "playbook" for the use of drones against
suspected terrorists that will provide detailed
rules for who will be included on so-called "kill
lists", under what circumstances drones can be
used to kill them, and what agency can do the
The debate has also included
whether or not - and to what extent - the
government should make those rules, and the legal
purportedly underlie them, public.
debate turns out could be critical to Obama's
hopes of reducing the size of Washington's
military "footprint" in the Middle East, notably
by withdrawing ground forces while still pursuing
a counter-terrorist strategy to disrupt and
destroy al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Over the past
four years, drone strikes have played the
pre-eminent role in that strategy.
Central Intelligence Agency, which operates the
drone program in Pakistan and shares
responsibility for drone operations with Pentagon
forces in Yemen, has reportedly argued for greater
leeway in carrying out strikes.
other hand, Obama's counter-terrorism chief and,
significantly, his nominee to head the CIA, John
Brennan, has reportedly called for tighter rules,
greater restraint, and more transparency.
According to a Washington Post account
published Monday, the haggling is now coming to an
end in a series of compromises that, among other
things, will permit the CIA to continue its
controversial Afghanistan-based drone program
against targets in neighboring Pakistan for the
next one to two years under the existing rules.
That covers the period when Washington is expected
to draw down its military presence in Afghanistan
from the current 66,000 troops to 10,000 or less.
One prominent critic of drone warfare has
already criticized the anticipated exclusion of
Pakistan from the so-called playbook.
If the United States decides not to apply the,
quote, playbook to Pakistan, it's essentially
meaningless, because 85% of all the targeted
killings that the US has conducted in
non-battlefield settings since 9/11 have occurred
in Pakistan," said Micah Zenko, a fellow at the
Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) whose recently
published report, "Reforming US Drone Strike
Policies", is shaping much of the current debate.
"So the vast majority of targeted killings
and drone strikes will not be covered under the
playbook," he told a press teleconference convened
by CFR Tuesday.
Since 9/11, US forces have
conducted some 425 targeted killings - all but a
few through drone strikes - in at least three
countries - Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
Altogether, they are believed to have killed more
than 3,000 people - more than the 9/11 death toll
itself. How many of those killed have been actual
members of terrorist organizations, as opposed to
civilians, has itself been a matter of intense
The resort to drone strikes evoked
controversy from the outset, not only because it
marked a reversal of the policy against
assassinations upheld by Republican and Democratic
presidents alike since CIA assassinations were
first exposed in the early 1970s, but also because
of the novelty of long-distance killing.
Typically, the operator of an armed drone
sits before a video screen in a secure facility as
far away as the state of Nevada, as much as 13,000
kilometers from the target.
controversial has been so-called "signature
strikes". While early drone strikes targeted
specific identified suspected terrorists included
on a "kill list" compiled by various US agencies,
"signature strikes", which have been carried out
to devastating effect in Pakistan in particular,
have targeted groups of suspected terrorists whose
precise identity is unknown.
the former Director of National Intelligence,
Admiral Dennis Blair, the distance between the
drone operator and the target should not by itself
be controversial. Drones, he told the same CFR
teleconference, should be thought of as
"long-range snipers, in the military sense".
Depending on the specific circumstances,
he also defended signature strikes. "If we are
fighting in Afghanistan, for example, and we know
that across the border in Pakistan there are
Taliban groups who are gathering and training... I
think we could authorize either snipers - people
with rifles - or drones to shoot at armed men who
we see getting into pick-up trucks and heading
towards the Afghanistan border."
same time, however, Blair expressed strong
reservations about several aspects of current
policy, notably the involvement of the CIA which,
due to its covert nature, is precluded from
speaking publicly about or defending its
"I strongly believe that a
great majority of the use of drones should be done
under military command," he said. "The reason that
we have covert action is to be able to deny it."
But that pretence is not sustainable in long
campaigns such as the one in Pakistan, he noted.
"The current open-secret, covert-action
drone program in Pakistan... does not nothing
except to enable the Pakistanis to allow to do it
[kill targets], unofficially, and then officially
to attack us for it and thereby make us extremely
unpopular in Pakistan and interferes with all
sorts of other objectives [we have] with
Zenko agreed, noting that drone
policy is "poorly co-ordinated with other elements
of national power in the countries where it's
being used", he said.
"And you can talk to
the US ambassadors to Pakistan or Yemen [and]...
to the USAID contractors who are trying to do sort
of soft-power efforts there, and they will tell
you that when you go to the tribal areas of
Pakistan or... southern Yemen, drones are the face
of US foreign policy.
"Because we don't
articulate and describe our vision for how these
are used very well, we essentially... allow the
Taliban and...the Pakistani government to tell our
story about drones, which is a tremendous
strategic communications lapse."
called for the playbook to be made public when it
is completed. "A classified playbook does not
reassure the American people who I think are the
primary ones that need to be convinced that their
government is doing the right thing," said Blair.
While Zenko said the playbook itself could
be "useful", other critics have described it
worrisome". Paul Pillar, a former top CIA analyst
for the Middle East and South Asia, also
questioned its value on his blog.
a playbook on assassinations sounds like it is apt
to be a useful guide for making the quick decision
whether to pull the trigger on a Hellfire missile
when a suspected terrorist is in the sights of a
drone. But it probably will not, as far as we
know, be of any help in weighing larger important
issues such as whether such a killing is likely to
generate more future anti-US terrorism because of
the anger over collateral casualties than it will
prevent taking a bad guy out of commission."
"By routinizing and institutionalizing a
case-by-case set of criteria, there is even the
hazard that officials will devote less
deliberation than they otherwise would have to
such larger considerations because they have the
comfort and reassurance of following a manual," he
Jim Lobe's blog on US
foreign policy can be read at