A sensible exception, but making a big announcement about limiting drone strikes and then carving out an exception for Pakistan is like going on a strict diet but making an exception for any food that’s “really tasty.” Most drone strikes happen in the tribal areas; if it’s business as usual there until U.S. troops are out of Afghanistan, why even announce the new policy now? Save it for the big Afghan withdrawal declaration next year, assuming that ever happens.
If, like me, you were unclear yesterday on how the “new” policy would authorize the droning of Pakistani Taliban number two Wali ur-Rehman, here’s your answer: There is no new policy when it comes to people who would attack American soldiers.
But in the days since the president’s speech, American officials have asserted behind the scenes that the new standards would not apply to the C.I.A. drone program in Pakistan as long as American troops remained next door in Afghanistan — a reference to Mr. Obama’s exception for an “Afghan war theater.” For months to come, any drone strikes in Pakistan — the country that has been hit by the vast majority of them, with more than 350 such attacks by some estimates — will be exempt from the new rules.
American officials refused to publicly confirm the drone strike or the death of the Pakistani Taliban’s deputy leader, Wali ur-Rehman, even as Pakistani government and militant figures reported that he had been killed. Thus, the promise of new transparency, too, seemed to be put off.
Per Long War Journal, the Taliban itself confirmed Rehman’s death today and said that it would suspend all peace talks with the Pakistani government as a result. Like I said yesterday, Rehman arguably qualified for the “kill list” even under Obama’s new, slightly more restrictive standards; he was, for instance, accused of complicity in the suicide-bomb attack that killed multiple CIA officers in Afghanistan in 2009. Was he a “continuing” and “imminent” threat to Americans? Yes — to the Americans stationed across the border. Here’s what O said about this in his speech last week:
In the Afghan war theater, we must — and will — continue to support our troops until the transition is complete at the end of 2014. And that means we will continue to take strikes against high value al Qaeda targets, but also against forces that are massing to support attacks on coalition forces. But by the end of 2014, we will no longer have the same need for force protection, and the progress we’ve made against core al Qaeda will reduce the need for unmanned strikes.
Beyond the Afghan theater, we only target al Qaeda and its associated forces. And even then, the use of drones is heavily constrained. America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists; our preference is always to detain, interrogate, and prosecute. America cannot take strikes wherever we choose; our actions are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty.
He chose the term “Afghan war theater” rather than “Afghanistan” for precisely this reason, presumably, so that he could keep bombing Taliban gangland in Pakistan while not calling attention to that not-so-minor loophole in his big speech. (Another not-so-minor loophole not emphasized in the speech itself: “Signature strikes,” in which the feds fire at people because their movements are suspicious without knowing for sure who they are, will also continue for the time being.) One obvious question raised by the “American theater of war” exception is whether it’ll be invoked to justify targeting Syrian jihadis — which the CIA is already contemplating — if/when the U.S. eventually deploys air assets to that swamp too. Does the presence of U.S. servicemen anywhere automatically put drones in play in that location as a protective mechanism? Or is O instead eyeing the bit from his speech about targeting “al Qaeda and its associated forces” as the big loophole going forward? Depending upon how you define “associated,” that could rope in a lot of groups globally, certainly Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria and select militias in Libya. It’s ironic that Obama got patted on the back last week by doves for suggesting that it’s time to repeal the 2001 AUMF for being too broad when he’s left himself an exception that broad for drone use.
One lingering question about the strike on Rehman: Why him and why now? By all accounts, including the NYT’s story quoted above, Rehman was more “diplomatic” than most Taliban bigwigs. If the White House is interested in peace talks between the Taliban and the Pakistani government, it’s bizarre to target Rehman; as noted, the Taliban is already vowing to drop diplomacy and keep fighting in the aftermath. Granted, we owed Rehman for what he did to the CIA base in 2009, but the White House is perfectly willing to let bygones be bygones with people who attack American troops if it helps to pacify trouble spots. We did it under Bush with Sunni insurgents via the Awakening six years ago and we’ve been trying to do it with the Taliban for the past few years under O. There must have been some strategic reason to hit Rehman, but it’s not clear to me, at least, what it was.