If it makes the doves out there feel better, I’m sure O was “anguished” and introspective, blah blah, about this latest raining o’ the death.
Quick, poll the public and see who’s angry about a prominent ally of Al Qaeda being liquidated.
The drone strike killed seven people, Pakistani security officials said, including Taliban deputy commander Wali-ur-Rehman, in the first such attack since a May 11 general election in which the use of the unmanned aircraft was a major issue.
Wali-ur-Rehman had been poised to succeed Hakimullah Mehsud as leader of the Pakistani Taliban, a senior army official based in the South Waziristan region, had said in December.
“This is a huge blow to militants and a win in the fight against insurgents,” one security official told Reuters, declining further comment.
The Pakistani Taliban are a separate entity allied to the Afghan Taliban. Known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), they have launched devastating attacks against the Pakistani military and civilians.
No one’s sure yet how many of the seven people killed were jihadis or merely bystanders sacrificed as “collateral damage” in the effort to nail Rehman. Obama suggested in last week’s brief counterterror distraction from Scandalmania that it was time to scale back drone strikes, especially when it comes to protecting bystanders, and reserve them only for (in the words of one U.S. official) those who present a “continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons.” What does that mean? No one’s really sure. Even people who specialize in foreign policy and military affairs, like Micah Zenko and Fred Kaplan, can’t tell if last Thursday’s windage represents a meaningful policy shift or just old drone-y wine in new rhetorical bottles. At Danger Room, Spencer Ackerman tries to figure out if Rehman qualifies for targeting under O’s new standards — if there is a new standard — or if the White House is already pushing past the boundaries it set for itself.
Rehman was not a member of al-Qaida. He was said to be poised to inherit the leadership of the Pakistani Taliban, which is an ally of al-Qaida’s residual core leadership in Pakistan. In 2010, the Pakistani Taliban boasted of training the naturalized U.S. citizen Faisal Shahzad for his ultimately unsuccessful bombing attempt in Times Square. The State Department put a $5 million bounty on ur-Rehman that year, but stopped short blaming him for Shahzad, although it did blame him for the deadly 2009 attack on a secret CIA base in Afghanistan. The group’s involvement in ongoing plots against the U.S. is less evident, however, and Obama explicitly said “America does not take strikes to punish individuals.”
The primary threat the Pakistani Taliban pose is to Pakistan. And the CIA got into the drone game in Pakistan in 2004 by agreeing to kill Pakistan’s enemies for it, as the New York Times‘ Mark Mazzetti reported in his new book. Rehman, it’s worth noting, has threatened Britain personally, though his involvement in any actual attack on the U.K. is unclear. Obama’s speech seemed to signal that the U.S. was done with sending drones after the enemies of its friends — but in any event, Pakistani military sources told Reuters in December that Rehman was “a more pragmatic” leader than incumbent Hakimullah Mehsud, with whom Rehman was said to be feuding. While Rehman was said to pursue reconciliation with the Pakistani government, the Pakistani military officers speculated that his rise “might lead to more attacks across the border in Afghanistan” on U.S.-led forces…
The Taliban in Afghanistan present a “continuing, imminent threat” to U.S. troops stationed there, and Rehman’s group in Pakistan is allied with them, and maybe Rehman’s further rise to power would have increased the threat, so … close enough for a drone kaboom, yes? One alternative possibility: Because Rehman presented more of a threat to Pakistan than to America, maybe this is yet another case of the White House doing its friends in Islamabad a favor by eliminating a domestic threat for them. An intel official told Long War Journal that the drone program was suspended in Pakistan in mid-April for “political considerations,” i.e. because the country was holding elections and the top candidates from both major parties were drone critics who sought talks with Taliban factions. Maybe Rehman, despite his reputation for “pragmatism,” was actually a hindrance to talks and the Pakistanis quietly requested that he be taken out in order to remove an obstacle. Or, more boldly, maybe his reputation was accurate and the White House, fearing that the Taliban would gain in Pakistan if the talks came off, decided to take out Rehman itself in order to create an obstacle to their rapprochement with Islamabad. Either way, that would be far beyond the drone limits that Obama laid out last week. But that’s okay from the White House’s perspective because, when push comes to shove, only the chattering classes care much about the specific protocols for killing bad guys and most of them are sufficiently liberal that they’ll let Obama slide for being a bit too aggressive at times. (That’s what the anguished Hamlet routine is about, signaling to lefty intellectuals that he’s wrestling with the moral and legal implications of all this and therefore can be trusted not to go really overboard with his drone policy.) Because Rehman had bumped up against U.S. intelligence before, O had political cover to take him out as an “imminent threat to America” now no matter what the real underlying reason might be. Go figure that a president who ignored his own lawyers and intervened in Libya without congressional approval wouldn’t be a stickler about tying his own hands in warmaking.