On Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry hinted that U.S. drones strikes in Pakistan could end soon. This news largely echoes a line in Obama’s May counterterrorism speech when the president said that “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.” After Obama gave that speech, it was only a matter of days before a new drone strike in Pakistan made front-page news. Despite the best intentions of President Obama and Secretary Kerry, drone strikes in Pakistan will only end when they are no longer an effective means to take out enemy targets.
To be fair, the number and frequency of drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal region has dropped significantly in the past three years. However, a decrease in frequency doesn’t necessarily mean we are close to an end. For years Pakistani officials and military officers have publicly condemned U.S. drone strikes as a violation of Pakistani sovereignty, only to turn around and secretly ask Obama for more. This created an unmistakable divide between the public political relationship and the private security reality that the U.S. and Pakistan have stumbled through since 2001.
The feeble relationship came to a head in May 2011 when elite U.S. Navy SEALs found and killed Osama bin Laden, who was hiding out just miles from Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point. The unilateral move triggered new tensions between the two countries that exploded later in November, when a U.S. strike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, prompting Islamabad to deny the U.S. overland shipping routes used to transport supplies to international security forces in Afghanistan.
In any war, accidents occur all too often. South Asia is no different, and drone strikes have certainly killed innocent Pakistani civilians. Government and non-governmental reports differ on the numbers, but even President Obama acknowledges that sometimes civilians are killed when the U.S. targets terrorists.
Put simply, the U.S. uses drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, and other places because they work. Drones are not only an effective means to reconnoiter an area or track enemies, but they also allow the killing of individuals from around the globe at the click of a button. The U.S. can kill its enemies without ever putting an American soldier in harm’s way. This powerful capability will only be reined in when radical enemies in Pakistan evolve to make drone strikes obsolete, or when there are no more enemies there to threaten the United States — neither of which is likely anytime soon. President Obama has made it clear that his primary duty is to protect U.S. citizens from attacks, and that he will act unilaterally to thwart terrorist attacks that would kill more civilians than any drone strike could.
Secretary Kerry is clearly focused on changing certain established status quos in international politics. He has already successfully brought Palestinian and Israeli representatives together to begin negotiating a possible peace treaty within the first months of his tenure as the United States’ chief diplomat. It’s hard to tell what Kerry’s intentions are after making such a statement, but readers can be sure about one thing: drone strikes will continue in Pakistan as long as they benefit the United States of America.