Friday, April 11, 2014

Record Absence in U.S. Drone Strikes

This article first appeared on The Epoch Times    

     Ninety-six days.  That is how long it has been since a US drone strike in Pakistan.  Is this a signal that there is a change in policy among those in the Obama administration, or is it simply diplomatic restraint?  What has the US done in other regions where it has waged recent strikes?  Did the election in Afghanistan last week play any role?

     Pakistan had asked the United States to cease its drone activity within their borders while they conducted peace talks with the Taliban.  The United States has listened and subsequently, there was a ceasefire between the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) and the Pakistani government.  However, this ceasefire has recently been broken but, nonetheless, the United States has complied with the request.  It appears as if Pakistan is trying to take steps to better their standing within the region and the international community.  In fact, US commander for Afghan forces, Marine General Joseph Dunford stated last month in an appearance before Congress, that Pakistan has taken steps to reach out to Afghanistan, a once rancorous regional rival, and offered to mend the broken relationship.   

     Many on the ground have reported that US drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere contribute to violent furor directed at the United States.  The United Nations has especially ramped up rhetoric towards the US for their drone campaign.  There have been independent reports published and submitted to the UN as well as a resolution drafted by 26 members of the UN Human Rights Council calling for greater transparency.  Most notable about the resolution is the sponsorship of Yemen.  The United States has shared very warm relations with Yemen regarding terrorism policy and the two nations have very closely coordinated military action within the Yemen border.

     Is it possible that the United States is being isolated for its drone campaign?  Another conjecture is the virtual uncertainty of the future of drones.  There are reports that several nations have begun to develop drone programs for military and non-military use.  Additionally, terrorist factions have also begun to gain access to drone technology, which is a frightening realization.  International human rights organizations are calling for international regulation regarding drones but drafting and enforcing such regulations could be futile.

     Within the United States, legislation has recently been introduced to provide transparency to the covert drone program.  The Targeted Lethal Force Transparency Act, introduced by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) this month, seeks to "make publicly available an annual report on the use of targeted lethal force by remotely-piloted aircraft."  Among the disclosures, the legislation would require the president to report annually on the total number of combatants, civilians, and persons killed or injured by US drone strikes.  Schiff's bill has already been hailed by several human rights groups who wish to bring to light the destruction caused by drones.  

     Elsewhere, it seems as though alternate forms of antiterrorism are working to push back hostile groups.  In Africa, UN groups achieved a victory in pushing back al-Shaabob in Somalia.  In a regional effort, African Horn countries, including Ethiopia and Kenya, have reclaimed key towns formally occupied by al-Shaabob.  Additionally, the United States had not conducted any drone strikes in Somalia last month, a signal that UN peacekeeping forces and US trained Ugandan troops may be achieving significant gains.  

     Afghanistan held elections last week to elect a new president.  This is an important event for the future of Afghanistan for two reasons: 1) each of the eight candidates running have assured they will sign a bilateral security agreement (BSA) allowing a residual US force to remain in the country after the 2014 troop withdrawal (something current Afghan President Hamid Karzai has not done) and 2) anticipation of Taliban disruption at the polls would serve as an indicator regarding their influence in the nation.  So far, the election is being hailed as a success with little Taliban interference and substantial voter turnout.  However, as Marvin Weinbaum, resident scholar at the Middle East Institute (a Washington think tank), stated at a policy roundtable, "we shouldn't take for granted that this is a credible election," implying that there are still areas and flaws to be addressed.   

     While Taliban disruption was limited this time around, experts, such as Omar Samad - former ambassador and fellow at the New America Foundation - believe the second round of elections could be opportune for the Taliban to play a larger role.  In fact, Afghan Taliban members have established amicable relations with Pakistani Taliban who have supplied training and materials.  According to a recent report, "in recent weeks the two groups [TTP and Afghan Taliban] have secretly agreed to work together, with Pakistani militants announcing a ceasefire with their government in order to preserve militant bases used to stage cross-border attacks."           

     To some, this development could provide evidence that the drone campaign was successful in deterring such groups from colluding and collaborating.  However, a more optimistic outlook suggests that, in reference to the African model, proper troop training and oversight from international organizations can be effective and can create longer term stability as indigenous forces eventually become self-sufficient.  This very reason is why the United States is so adamant in signing the BSA.  The administration believes the work in Afghanistan is not done and they want to ensure that Afghan forces can adequately quell terrorist groups independently after the impending US departure.  

     It is too early to tell if there is a change in policy from the Obama administration but certainly, there are other options on the table and this issue is not going away. 

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