This special edition of the Politics Hour combined local and national politics live from Slim's Diner in Petworth, Northwest D.C.
Pakistan’s new prime minister called on the U.S. to halt its drone strikes — two weeks after President Barack Obama justified them in a major speech and said they’ll continue when needed. We look at U.S. drone policy, the view from Pakistan and the future of targeted killing.
- Jonathan Landay Senior National Security and Intelligence Correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers
- Samina Ahmed Senior Asia Adviser, International Crisis Group
MR. KOJO NNAMDIOn his first day in office, Pakistan's new prime minister warned the U.S. yesterday that drone strikes on his country must stop. The remarks coming two weeks after President Obama defended the U.S. drone program in a major foreign policy speech. The president called targeted killings effective and said that they will be used against people who posed a continuing and imminent threat to Americans.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIU.S. drone operations have been conducted by the CIA largely in secret with little public acknowledgement that the U.S. sends unmanned drones to kill suspected al-Qaida and Taliban operatives. President Obama hinted that the program may shift to the Defense Department, which could open it to greater congressional oversight. In the meantime, the U.S. and Pakistan are trying to navigate a delicate relationship that serves both their interests, even as drone attacks continue.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us in studio to have this conversation is Jonathan Landay. He is senior national security and intelligence correspondent for McClatchy newspapers. Jonathan Landay, thank you for joining us.
MR. JONATHAN LANDAYThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio, Samina Ahmed, senior Asia advisor at the International Crisis Group. She is usually based in Islamabad, Pakistan. thank you for joining us in studio today, Samina Ahmed.
MS. SAMINA AHMEDMy pleasure.
NNAMDIYou too can join this conversation at 800-433-8850 if you'd like to share your thinking about U.S. drone strikes. Do you think the U.S. should engage in targeted killings, 800-433-8850. You can send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Jonathan Landay, President Obama gave a big foreign policy speech two weeks ago. And for the first time talked publically about drone strikes and targeted killings. He said they're effective, they're legal and will be used against threats that are continuing and imminent. Why was this speech significant?
LANDAYWell, he -- I think it's significant -- this isn't the first time he's spoken. He has actually talked about these in interviews before, Google chat for instance. But I think what the president was trying to do is set the stage for what he sees as a shift in the U.S. counterterrorism campaign that vegan under the Bush Administration. But I think what the president said was almost more than a wish list of where he would like to take this program rather than what's going on with it now.
LANDAYBecause in the days after the president gave this speech, which was cast in terms of him trying to constrain drone strikes, there have been three drone strikes, one in Pakistan, two in Yemen. And they've not been against, as far as we can tell -- at least the one in Pakistan was not against al-Qaida. And the ones in Yemen don't seem to be against any major or senior leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. So there are still major questions about where drone policy is. And a lot of people who follow this, legal scholars, actually say they didn't really hear anything new in the president's speech.
NNAMDISamina Ahmed, you listened to the speech in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. What was the reaction there?
AHMEDThe reaction differed from those that were skeptical and believe that there was nothing new in the president's speech other than a signal that drones would still be used. But there were others who said, well maybe this is a step in the right direction that there will be some constraints on the drone operation. But I think on the whole there was disappointment that there was no mention of the CIA-run program in the speech because in Pakistan it's not a military-run program. It is a CIA-run program. It wasn't mentioned once in the speech itself.
NNAMDIJust days after the president gave that speech, Pakistan says a U.S. drone strike killed a top Pakistani Taliban leader. We heard Jonathan talk about two strikes in Yemen. The U.S. has not confirmed the strike or the death in Pakistan, but what does that alleged killing tell us about drone policy going forward, and what was the reaction in Pakistan?
AHMEDThe official reaction was pretty much what it's always been. This is an attack on Pakistan's serenity. It has to stop. There are humanitarian implications. This doesn't serve U.S. national security interests. But the reaction in the areas where the strike took place, which is more difficult to gauge, from what we understand, was slightly different. They got one of the bad guys. And this is the only way this is going to happen. This is the only way they're going to get rid of these bad guys because the Pakistani military's doing nothing to take them out.
NNAMDIAnd Jonathan Landay, the combination of that strike and the two in Yemen, what does that strike say to you about the drone policy going forward, that the president's speech was just hot air?
LANDAYI don't think it was hot air. As I said, I think it's a wish list. I think it's where he would like to take this program but it doesn't show any sign, at this point, that it's being constrained. The man that was killed in Pakistan was a leader of the Pakistani Taliban And he had a $5 million reward on his head for alleged complicity in a bombing that killed seven CIA officers and contractors I think in 2009. He allegedly was involved in attacking American troops in Afghanistan.
LANDAYBut the precise reason, what was the continuing and imminent threat -- that's the quote that you yourself used -- that this man posed, we don't know. We haven't been told. He was not al-Qaida, certainly linked very closely to al-Qaida. And so the question -- so this raises questions about what really was the president talking about, if indeed this is the kind of continued operation we're going to see.
LANDAYThe other implication in this is that despite the fact that Pakistan officially protested this as being a violation of its sovereignty and international law, the fact is that these strikes against Pakistani Taliban extremists have been conducted in cooperation with Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI and its military.
NNAMDISo what, Samina Ahmed, are we to make of the prime minister's remarks? Yesterday Pakistan's parliament swore in Nawaz Sharif as prime minister for an unprecedented third term. Remember he served as prime minister twice in the late '90s being ousted by General Pervez Musharraf and living in exile. In his address to the national assembly he called on the United States to stop drone strikes in Pakistan. How do you think Sharif will navigate Pakistan's relationship with the United States, or are we talking about more hot air?
AHMEDSharif did mention in his inaugural speech to the parliament that the U.S. must stop drone strikes. But this came at the end of a very long speech. And it was more in aside than anything else. What's more important is another statement that Sharif made in which he said, the United States and Pakistan have many interests in common. Where there are areas of convergence we will work very closely together. Where there are areas of divergence we'll work together to remove these differences. That's a very pragmatic approach.
AHMEDSo I don't think it was necessarily hot air. It was signaling that this is an issue which is problematic for him, for his new government but that he's willing to work with the U.S. on it.
NNAMDISamina Ahmed is senior Asia advisor at the International Crisis Group. She is based in Islamabad, Pakistan. She joins us in studio along with Jonathan Landay, senior national security and intelligence correspondent for McClatchy newspapers. Here is Daniel in Winchester, Va. Daniel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANIELOh, thank you for taking my call. I just wanted to say that I think that the drone strikes so far have been working. They're getting the bad guys without loss of American or Pakistani lives, except for the ones that are actually perpetrating the crimes or whatever. I do think that it's a good idea to change the control from the CIA to the Defense Department. Other than that I think they're working and I believe we should continue the drone strikes.
NNAMDIWell, you can say they may be working for us, Daniel, but does it matter to you how people in Pakistan or the government of Pakistan feels about this?
DANIELWell, you were talking earlier about the man who had a bounty on his head. Obviously they don't like him much either. I don't see why they would want him to stick around.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. Samina, the International Crisis Group says it's hard to gauge the true feelings of the civilians who live in Pakistani tribal areas because they're afraid to talk either to the militants or to the military. How well do we know their views on drone strikes?
AHMEDIt's extremely hard because of the barriers that the military has placed on access to these regions. Not just barriers for journalists or for analysts, but for humanitarian organizations as well. Until and unless these barriers are removed, unless we can have independent investigations done, we really won't know A. what kind of damage is done in terms of collateral damage, but B. what is the reaction of the people who live in these areas.
AHMEDI would say to your caller, I think we have to be a little cautious on how effective these drone strikes have been in eliminating al-Qaida and other terror groups that operate out of the tribal border lands. In actual fact, so long as this region remains a no-man's land, so long as the Pakistani state doesn't assert its authority, or this belt -- this tribal belt bordering on Afghanistan, you'll always have militants and the allies being able to regroup, reorganize and to plan operations out of (word?) .
NNAMDIYour turn, Jonathan Landay.
LANDAYIndeed, there's a major question about how effective these strikes have been. Certainly the United States, the president and other officials assert that these strikes have been absolutely key in preventing another attack on the U.S. homeland. But the fact is that these -- and seriously damaging the core leadership of al-Qaida. The thing is though that these strikes have not been limited to al-Qaida. They've not been limited to the Pakistani Taliban. They've been limited -- they've also gone after other groups including the so-called Haqqani network, which is a major Afghan insurgent group. But they haven't destroyed the Haqqani network. Indeed, the Haqqani network seems to be as powerful as it ever was.
LANDAYIt has not stopped the insurgency -- the Afghan insurgents who are based on the Pakistan side of the border from crossing the border and attacking people and staging IED attacks and suicide bombings in Afghanistan. So from the American point of view it may have been effective in terms of the damage done to al-Qaida's core and preventing plots against the homeland, but from the point of view of people who live in Afghanistan for instance or U.S. troops in Afghanistan, they haven't been that effective.
NNAMDIAnd Samina Ahmed, there's also the question of what they are doing to the tribal structures in those tribal areas. I'm looking at an op-ed column by Akbar Ahmed who is the Islamic Studies chair at American University, writing in the New York Times. He says, "Drone strikes like Wednesday's in Waziristan are destroying already weak tribal structures and throwing communities in disarray throughout Pakistan's tribal belt along the border with Afghanistan."
NNAMDIHe says, "The tribesmen of Waziristan have, for years, seen the Pakistani government as colluding on drone strikes against -- drone strikes with the Americans against whom their tribal kin are fighting across the border in Afghanistan." He makes the point that the stability in tribal society depends on three pillars, elders, religious leaders and the central government. He says that's all being destroyed by the drone strikes, Samina Ahmed.
AHMEDIf there's a myth that should be exploded once and for all, it's about this notion that drone strikes have destroyed tribal structures. Tribal structures in this no-man's land have been destroyed by militants. The tribal elders that the professor talks about, hundreds of them have been killed, others have been intimidated, they've fled for their lives. Militants taking over this area have replaced them in so-called tribal councils. They're called jirgas. So in actual fact, what do you have in the tribal belt. You have the militants, and you have the military, and you have people caught in between.
NNAMDIThe notion that tribal structures can somehow be either stabilized, maintained, and can serve more effectively than drone strikes to bring alleged terrorists to judgment to be tried is a false notion?
LANDAYAbsolutely. As Samina pointed out, the tribal structure, the FATA structure, the elders who hold these jirgas have been killed in the hundreds by these militants. Beyond that, Pakistani military operations, as well as militant operations, have driven hundreds of thousands of people out of the tribal areas, and that has wrecked the tribal structure too. As consequence of that, you have this terrible ongoing violence now in the port city of Karachi between people who have moved down from the tribal areas, Pashtun -- the ethnic Pasthuns, a lot of Taliban are there, and ethnic Sindhis who are the people from that province, as well as Muhajirs who are descendants of immigrants from India, and the violence in Karachi is a direct consequence of what's been going on that has helped destroy the tribal structure in the FATA, Federally Administered Tribal Agencies.
LANDAYThe other thing I want -- I want to go back to the last caller's question very briefly too.
LANDAYAnd that is the fact is that drone strikes have not been launched against the people who are directing the insurgency in Afghanistan from another part of Pakistan. That part of Pakistan was put off limits to drone strikes by the Pakistani military. That would the province of Baluchistan where the Taliban leadership, Mullah Omar, and his council are located. There have been no drone strikes there at all. So again, they are selective, and they have been effective in terms of perhaps enhancing -- in terms of enhancing U.S. security, but they've really done nothing to enhance the security of Pakistan or Afghanistan.
NNAMDIGlad you brought that up, because Samina Ahmed, it seems like the Pakistani leaders, both in the government and in the military have tacitly agreed to U.S. drone strikes, especially when the U.S. targets their enemies in what are known as goodwill killings. How does that complicate matters?
AHMEDIt certainly complicates matters when the insist that Pakistan's sovereignty is under attack. And then you have president and army chief Musharraf admitting this year, well, actually I was working with the Americans, and I helped them to target our common enemies. So this deniability, this belief that Pakistan is the victim, or at least this attempt to whip up anti-American sentiment around drone attacks is tactical. It's used to pressure America to attack the military's perceived adversaries, and there there's cooperation.
AHMEDBut when there's an attack on the military's allies, such as the al Qaida linked Haqqani network, all of a sudden you see once again this issue of drones being brought to the forefront, and the broadcast media used to whip up anti-American sentiment.
NNAMDIAll politics they say is local. We're going to be taking a short break. When we come back we will return to this conversation on U.S. drone policy and how it's influencing life and politics in Pakistan. You can still call us 800-433-8850. Has the U.S. made a good case for the legality of drone strikes and targeted killings in your view? You can also send email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on U.S drone strike policy and its effect on politics and life in Pakistan. We're talking with Samina Ahmed. She is senior Asia advisor at the International Crisis Group based in Islamabad Pakistan. Jonathan Landay is senior national security and intelligence correspondent for McClatchy newspapers. And when we think of drones striking Pakistan, we think of somebody sitting someplace in the United States targeting those individuals in Pakistan, but apparently some of those drone bases were in Pakistan.
LANDAYAbsolutely. There was a drone base about 200 kilometers away from the capital of Baluchistan province. The name of the base was Shamsi, and I believe that there was also a base in Jacobabad where they were also based. And so yes, they were actually flying out of Pakistan with the permission of the Pakistani military. And so the fact that the CIA was based there for years does not really go hand in hand with Pakistan's, you know, protests about violations its sovereignty and international law.
LANDAYNow, those bases have been, as far as we know, closed down as a result of a border incident in 2011 in November where a U.S. plane killed something like 24 or 26 Pakistani soldiers on the border in a mixed up clash on the border. But the Americans are still launching drone strikes into FATA albeit from bases now in Afghanistan.
NNAMDIDoes it make a difference, Samina Ahmed, the CIA has been running the drone program. President Obama seemed to suggest that drone operations will shift over to the Defense Department. Do you see that making a difference.
AHMEDIt'll certainly make a difference, as long as this is a CIA-run operation. It will remain completely secretive. There will be no transparency, and very little accountability. Shifting it to the Pentagon, at least we take the first steps, intangible steps to have some meaningful oversight over everything related to the operation from targeting to the impact of attacks and the aftermath. We've strongly suggested and recommended that there needs to be also judicial oversight as well as more congressional oversight than presently exists.
AHMEDThe armed services committees exercising oversight degree of transparency and accountability, that's not going to be possible so long as this remains in the Pakistani context, a CIA-run operation.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. What's your view? Should drone operations move from the CIA to the Pentagon? You can give us a call or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a tweet @kojoshow. Would this move in your view, Jonathan Landay, in fact give Congress greater oversight, create more transparency?
LANDAYI don't know. I mean, that's one of the things people say, but the fact is that the military operations themselves are also classified. They're carried out by the Joint Special Operations Command, and the other thing that we don't know are the legal basis on which all of this takes place. We've heard what the president has said. We've heard was CIA Director John Brennan has said, but what we haven't seen, what legal scholars and experts have not seen are the actual legal opinions on which this policy rests, and those will remain classified according to the President of the United States.
LANDAYThe other think that we don't know are for instance the civilian casualties. There's no doubt the president himself has said that there have been civilian casualties, and he himself in his speech noted that there's a big gap between what the American government believes that number is, and what outside organizations who've been trying to track that question believe. The question is though, will we ever get to know? Will that ever be defined?
LANDAYThe other question I have is when the president made this speech, he said, you know, that I have signed this new presidential decision directive, kind of encapsulating all of these guidelines and the procedures by which we determine how -- determine targets and conduct drone strikes. Well, if there wasn't one -- if he just signed this directive, what was before that? What kind of guidelines did they have? Did they have any guidelines? There are a lot of questions that have not been answered, and there's a great deal of -- there's a big question as to whether or not those questions will be answered even if these operations are shifted to the U.S. military.
NNAMDIWell, let's look at the targeting. President Obama said individuals who pose a consistent and imminent threat to U.S. lives, and who cannot be apprehended could become targets. Well, you mentioned earlier that the two targets in Yemen we are not exactly sure about what kind of threat they pose, but what do we know about who chooses targets and why?
LANDAYWell, we know that identified targets, people that can identify as being what they call senior operational leaders of al Qaida and associated forces, and oh, by the way, they have never publically said who those associated forces are. We don't know. And it could be a very elastic definition as far as we know. But those -- we are told -- we have been told that there is a very deliberative process, that they identify specific targets, that they weigh the strategic value of taking these targets out.
LANDAYWe've been told that they're not always worth taking out. Okay. But the fact is that we know that only about two percent of the people around -- close to about 4,000 people who have been estimated who have been killed in drone strikes, have been senior operational leaders of al Qaida, and whoever the associated forces are.
NNAMDIBut there are apparently two different profiles for drone targets.
NNAMDIWhat's the difference between a so-called signature strike, and a personality strike, and where is each kind most often used?
LANDAYWell, that's where I was going. Because the other strike -- the majority of strikes, where they've killed hundreds of people in scores of strikes, at least in Pakistan, it's quite obvious, I did some groundbreaking reporting using classified documents that I was able to get a hold of back in April which showed that in a lot of cases they don't know who they're hitting. The people they're hitting are people who fit a profile, who fit a signature that is associated with someone who's a militant.
LANDAYMilitary-aged males carrying weapons, people who have been seen and tracked going to compounds that are associated, is the word they used, with for instance a particular al Qaida leader, a particular Haqqani network leader, and then track them and they see them meeting up with other people who are carrying weapons and they fit this profile and they are taken out. And the question is, are all of the people who are being killed extremists?
LANDAYThe fact is that, you know, I've spent time in the tribal area back during the time when we were allowed to go there, and every military aged male in the tribal area, because it's cultural and it's traditional, carries a weapon. So how do you differentiate? That's another question we don't know, and that's also a question that the president did not address in his speech.
NNAMDISamina Ahmed, of course Jonathan mentioned this before, but it's a big concern about drone strikes, the killing of unintended victims. Can you talk a little bit about so-called collateral damage and how much or how little we know about it?
AHMEDIt's very, very difficult to gauge the figures in terms of how many people -- how many civilians have been killed in drone attacks. But what we do know is that there has been a change in targeting. The targeting is more precise than it was in the past. The civilian casualty figures have fallen. We need to be a little cautious about the one thing. I think it's absolutely that whatever legal guidelines are ultimately framed, respect international humanity and law and human rights law.
AHMEDThere's absolutely no doubt about that. But let's also be very clear about one thing. Drones are weapons, whether they are remotely used and considered to be some kind of a robot killing machine. Are they that different from jet fighters? Are they that different from heavy artillery? In some of the attacks that have taken place, for sure, you know, there are indications that there be a mass of civilian casualties, but there are very few of those.
AHMEDWhat we do know is that in the military operations that are being carried out in these areas, there have been massive civilian casualties. So when you talk to locals, you know what they say. They say at least a drone takes out a specific target. It's not going to be the entire town under attack. So we do have to be yes, I think signature strikes are a very bad idea and they should stop. It's not a good thing to talk in terms of groups massing with whichever behavioral pattern as opposed to an identity.
AHMEDBut at the same time, I think we need to be a little cautious on what exactly are we talking about in terms of weapons used, and do they follow and respect international humanitarian law and human rights law.
NNAMDIThe International Crisis Group says the best way to end U.S. drone strikes is for Pakistan to overhaul its governance of the tribal areas and uphold the rule of law to bring violent extremists to justice. Is that something we're likely to see under the new Sharif government?
AHMEDThere were a few steps taken in fact in the last democratically-elected government to bring FATA -- to bring the tribal areas into the mainstream to give the citizens who live here the rights that citizens enjoy in the rest of the country. I do think there is an awareness now that 60-some years later Pakistani citizens living in FATA are deprived of their rights and the state is not exercising its obligation to protect their physical security.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid we're almost out of time. Do you think the military withdrawal from Afghanistan next year will affect the drone program in the U.S./Pakistani relationship, Jonathan Landay?
LANDAYOh, absolutely. It's already being affected. The fact is that at the height of the drone strike -- the height of the CIA drone strikes in Pakistan, which was 2010, 2011, coincided with the U.S. surge of ground troops into southern and eastern Afghanistan under President Obama. Now those troops are coming out. I think -- yes. That's why you've already seen a drop off in the number of drone strikes.
NNAMDIJonathan Landay is senior national security and intelligence correspondent for McClatchy newspapers. Jonathan, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDISamina Ahmed is senior Asia advisor at the International Crisis Group. She is based in Islamabad Pakistan. However, she joins us in studio here today. Samina Ahmed, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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