Joshua Foust

Pakistani ambassador to the US Sherry Rehman recently made an unsurprising statement. She said that her government has not approved any drones strikes. “It hasn’t okayed any American drone strikes on its territory in exchange for Washington’s apology over the Salala attacks,” she said in an interview with CNN. Sherry argued that there are more effective ways to go after terrorists inside Pakistan, and that the Pakistani government officially condemns “unilateral” drone strikes on its territory.

The word “unilateral” here is important, because the Pakistani government collaborates with the US on at least some drone strikes. It varies by target, but the Pakistani government is seeking greater control over target selection and intelligence gathering - and not necessarily an end to the drone strikes. After all, the Pakistani government is fighting terrorists as well.

There is a surprisingly simple explanation for this seeming contrast between public statements by officials and what happens behind the scenes. Pakistani authorities don’t mind it when US drones kill off people like the TTP (Pakistani Taliban) leader Baitullah Mehsud. They do, however, mind when US drone strikes happen without their consent or involvement, such as one in North Waziristan in May of this year.

Speaking with CNN, Sherry emphasised the problem of so-called “signature strikes,” in which a drone is used to attack a group of unidentified people judged as behaving suspiciously. Like many people, she’s uncomfortable with a foreign power killing her country’s citizens without knowing who they are or what they’re doing.

The issue of drones in Pakistan is terribly complex. Pakistanis seem, simultaneously, to love and hate them: love, because drones are responsible for killing many of the terrorists who have brutalized communities across the northwest; hate, because they kill innocent people and because it’s humiliating to grant America the right to bomb your country.

In recent years, US intelligence services have built up the ability to target the destroy targets in Pakistan without involving the Pakistanis, and that has rankled many in the Pakistani government and security services. At the same time, opportunistic politicians like Imran Khan have taken the hurt pride at having America bomb the country and morphed it into outrage at America - a worrying development if left unchecked.  Untangling the many feelings Pakistanis have about drones, then, is not easy. As Reuters reporter Myra MacDonald has noted quite eloquently, many of the voices most essential to understanding the effects of drones - the residents of the tribal areas themselves - are deliberately marginalised by opportunists in support of and in opposition to drones.  A recent Pew global poll suggests there is global opposition to the US drone campaign. More worryingly, however, is the decrease it shows in Pakistanis’ perceptions of the US: 19 per cent favourable under President Bush in 2008, but only 12 per cent favourable under President Obama in 2012. Whatever the cause, the US is losing the war of perception in Pakistan.

It’s not clear what can be done to stem America’s unpopularity. Policymakers don’t seem to think they have many options outside using drones to identify and kill suspected terrorists. While Sherry says she thinks that there are other ways to go after terrorists - she wasn’t clear on specifics - Washington still seems to consider drones the least-bad way to kill bad guys.

One way to think about stemming American unpopularity is to change the terms on which the US relates to Pakistan. Despite apology and reopening of supply lines, relations between the two countries remain tense. The prospects for a close alliance don’t seem likely, but the US could help deescalate tensions in part by doing more to consider Pakistan’s national pride. Including Pakistani officials in the targeting process more often could be one way of building trust - though US officials often warn that this can make plans for a drone strike more likely to leak, allowing the target to get away. So it’s not clear that a mutually beneficial balance could really be struck.

Another way to deescalate tensions might be to focus down the drone programme to only high value targets such as al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri, ending strikes against low level (or unidentified) targets, likely allaying some Pakistani objections to the programme while still preserving freedom of action against really important threats.

Winding down the war in Afghanistan would also remove a major irritant to the Pakistani relationship. A rally by the Difah-e-Pakistan Council, or Defence of Pakistan Council, shut down Islamabad on Tuesday. They were protesting the reopening of Nato supply lines into Afghanistan. While not large in the grand scheme of things - 8,000 people isn’t exactly a mass movement in a country of 177 million - the protests do show that a number of Pakistanis oppose the war. Following through on Obama’s plan to end major combat operations by 2014 might further ease the US-Pakistan relationship and allow a bit more leeway in how it proceeds. With a bit of luck, come 2014, that might be enough to keep things mostly under control.

–The Atlantic