Following a three-hour meeting with Pakistan's top decision making echelon, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the drone strikes inside Pakistan could end "very soon."
"I think the program will end as we have eliminated most of the threat and continue to eliminate it," Kerry told the Pakistan TV interviewer. "I think the president has a very real timeline and we hope it's going to be very, very soon. I think it depends really on a number of factors, and we're working with your government with respect to that."
Although this is one of the very rare occasions a high level U.S. official has come out and stated the U.S.'s intention to end the drone strikes, the statement and its meaning must be taken with a pinch of salt. If it was for the public disapproval in Pakistan, in the U.S. or around the world, the drones would not be operating today. Plus, the Obama administration does not have the best record on adhering to deadlines (Guantanamo Bay is still functional). Hence, the issue needs to be viewed in purely strategic terms.
Taking into account the ground realities of the situation, it is highly unlikely that the strikes will come to an end as long as the U.S. aims to achieve a face-saving exit from Afghanistan.
First and foremost, there is ample evidence to suggest clandestine Pakistani military acquiescence in the past regarding targeting militants in the FATA area in Pakistan. As I highlighted in great detail in a recent article on the topic, despite the official Pakistani stance, the tacit agreement on the issue and supporting evidence greatly questions the stance that the drones are a breach of Pakistani sovereignty. The Pakistani army and the nation's premier intelligence agency, the ISI, have provided bases for drones to operate from and routinely give the CIA coordinates regarding where to strike. Although the drones remain illegal as per international humanitarian law, as long as the Pakistani military establishment is ready to withstand the immense criticism regarding civilian casualties and continues to benefit from the drone strikes (for example, the strike that killed the founder of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud), the strikes are unlikely to stop.
Second, the main target of the drone strikes, the notorious Haqqani network, continues to operate across the border from Pakistan's ungoverned tribal area, North Waziristan. Its leader, Sirajjudin Haqqani, shuttles between Afghanistan and North Waziristan (Pakistani territory) organizing Taliban activities against NATO forces in Paktia and Paktika (Afghanistan). Despite continuous U.S. pressure on the Pakistani government to take on the Haqqani network it has been beyond the capacity of the army to do so as it remains embroiled in a savage conflict against the Pakistani Taliban. The Haqqani network will continue to be a menace for as long as U.S./NATO forces remain in Afghanistan, carrying out periodic armed and suicide attacks. It will also not reign in its activities if Sirajjudin Haqqani is not pleased by the results of a negotiated post-withdrawal Afghan government in 2014 and beyond.
However, certain new developments might act in favour of the argument that the drone strikes might either be significantly toned down or altogether abandoned in the near future.
The new Nawaz Sharif government is extremely opposed to the drone strikes and campaigned heavily on the issue on the run up to the elections. If the civilian government is able to flex its muscle, then the drone campaign could witness a change.
However, what is more pertinent is a change in thinking among the top Pakistani military brass. General Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani is set to vacate his post this fall. A new chief of army staff who might not be as pliable on the issue of the drone campaign (although a slim chance) might signal a shift in policy too.
Most importantly however, both the Pakistani establishment and U.S. policymakers need to realize the shortsightedness of the benefits obtained from the drone campaign. By killing civilians, destroying houses and infrastructure, and adding credence to the anti-American sentiment prevalent in the tribal areas, the governments are quite literally playing into the hands of the militants. Recruits virtually roll in incensed with the destruction and violence caused by the drone attacks (remember what Time Square bomber Faisal Shahzad said in court?). The areas infested by drones are turning into breeding grounds for anti-American and anti-Pakistani militants. However, even if the drone attacks were to stop, the situation might be irredeemable. It has already created a generation or two of vociferously anti-American individuals.
Hence, Kerry's remarks oversimplify what has now turned into an extremely complex and possibly lose-lose situation. Drone attacks will not stop as long as U.S. forces remain in Afghanistan and as long as the U.S. policymakers plan to address the threat of Islamic extremism as a threat to their national security.