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Controlling America's Deadly Drones

Author: Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon Fellow
May 15, 2009
Guardian UK

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In recent months, US and Pakistani military and intelligence officials have agreed to a shift in the roles and responsibilities of the use of unmanned aerial drones to strike al-Qaida and Taliban operatives throughout Pakistan.

As hinted to in Wednesday's Los Angeles Times and further clarified in Thursday's New York Times, a squadron of drones tasked solely to the Pentagon will offer real-time surveillance and communications information to Pakistani military and intelligence agencies. These Predator and Reaper drones will provide counterinsurgency support to Pakistan by watching those Taliban militants whose primary agenda and interests are to overthrow the ruling regime in Islamabad.

The CIA will retain control of its own drones, which can be re-dedicated to pursuing their original counterterrorism mission: hunting down high-value al-Qaida operatives who remain motivated to planning and conducting attacks against Europe and the US.

This creative and unprecedented arrangement is another welcome sign that the Obama administration is willing to reorient foreign policy programmes that have drifted away from their original intentions in order to reflect new realities on the ground. The adjustment of the Predator operations will better safeguard an important US ally and, potentially, the American homeland.

First, the new arrangement better distinguishes between al-Qaida, "the terrorists who planned and supported the 9/11 attacks" as defined by President Barack Obama, and the range of Taliban militant networks that stand opposed to a corrupt, largely ineffective, and apostate regime.

Throughout the cold war, successive presidential administrations made the mistake of perceiving its adversaries to be closely connected and aligned in opposition to the United States, when they were, in fact, enemies of convenience who each had their own localised disputes. In Pakistan, the Obama administration has correctly disaggregated al-Qaida and the Taliban.

Second, since the CIA retains autonomy over its drones, it can stop serving as a counterinsurgency air force for Pakistan and refocus on what it is uniquely qualified to do: fuse the technical and human intelligence that can provide the patterns of behaviour that might lead to actionable intelligence to target and kill Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

While President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan told NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday that he had "strong feeling" and "reason to believe" that Bin Laden was dead, this judgement is better left for motivated and unburdened US intelligence professionals.

Third, despite persistent requests from Pakistani political and military officials for their own fleet of Predators, the US was not going to provide them in the foreseeable future. Because President George Bush designated Pakistan a "major non-Nato ally" in 2004, the White House might have been have been able to make a successful argument to transfer the drones on national security grounds.

This was, however, a very unpopular idea among key senators and intelligence officials who are highly sceptical of Pakistan's motivations and intentions against the Taliban. Pakistan will now be able to utilise a unique set of intelligence collection capabilities, under the watchful eye of the US military, to go after its internal enemies.

Fourth, although it is unclear from news report if the Pentagon's drones will fire missiles at Taliban militants, the new arrangement could also lessen the strong anti-American sentiment among average Pakistanis toward the Predators, since the government can no longer denounce missile strikes that it jointly plans and conducts.

Despite the relatively positive aspects of this new arrangement, however, there remain difficult operational questions that must be answered and agreed upon by both countries. Who determines when the drones are tasked to support US forces in Afghanistan, or Pakistani counterinsurgency operations across the border? If missiles are fired, what are the rules of engagement that delineate the circumstances and limitations under which the drones will be used? And, most importantly, who will have the ultimate authority to authorise the use of force during the fog of war that are inherent in counterinsurgency operations?

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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