U.S.-Pakistan relations are far worse now than when President Obama took office. The President’s toxic legacy in Pakistan can be summed up in one word—drones. While Washington’s attention is currently focused elsewhere, the relentless nature of drone strikes in Pakistan has left an indelible mark on bilateral ties and the Pakistani people. It has not only complicated areas of mutual interest such as counterterrorism, but successfully widened trust deficits in a relationship that couldn’t be more complex and consequential.

Although both countries have a stake in ensuring regional peace in South Asia, the subject of drones has polarized opinions and contributed significantly towards tensions. The issue of drone strikes—alongside other notable incidents such as the Osama Bin Laden raid near Pakistan’s military academy and the Salala checkpost attack—buttresses the argument made by many Pakistani commentators that U.S. policy is transactional, unlike China’s approach to Pakistan.

The Obama administration’s drone policy can be divided into two phases. The first phase was when Pakistan witnessed a transition to democracy and the leftist Pakistan Peoples Party came to power after the 2008 elections. The second phase spanned the time period when the center-right Pakistan Muslim League-N came to power, a party that had been more vociferous in its anti-drone articulation as compared to its predecessors.  The first phase saw a souring of ties between the countries but the drone campaign continued, while the constant “do more” refrain from the United States annoyed and isolated Pakistani policymakers as well as sections of the public. In addition, key events such as the Raymond Davis incident contributed in intensifying anti-American sentiment among the Pakistani public, which was initially centered on the drone campaign only. The debate over the legality of drone strikes and the subsequent polarization over how to deal with the restive tribal belt in Pakistan raged on. And this necessitated striking a balance between the United States pushing for peace and stability in the region and Pakistan being able to uphold its sovereignty.

If examined, many of the claims of the Pakistani public are legitimate. As per the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s statistics, there have been seven times more drone strikes under the Obama administration as compared to Bush. Out of 2,379 deaths from 2004 to 2015, only 84 or 4 percent have been identified as Al Qaeda members or intended targets. Amnesty International has raised concerns  that U.S. drone killings are “outside the bounds of human rights and the law.” It is undoubtedly true that the restive tribal belt in Western Pakistan hosts an array of rogue actors which threaten strategic stability, such as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, Al Qaeda, which has exacerbated counterterrorism problems in Afghanistan, and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, which orchestrated the Peshawar school attack. But the fact that drone strikes have disproportionately targeted civilians and have eroded the tribal fabric of society has continued to foment discord against the Obama administration and compounded counterterrorism efforts.

2013 onwards, however, Pakistan became embroiled in an internal war against militants, in the aftermath of the Jinnah International Airport attack and the Army Public School, Peshawar massacre, which prompted the Pakistani military establishment to get ruthless against all terrorist groups. This period also saw appeals made by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to end drone strikes, while the Obama administration repeatedly asked Pakistan to do more to crackdown on the Haqqani network, and terror outfits such as the Jaish-e-Mohammed, which is suspected of being involved in the Pathankot attack.

Yet, gross violations of Pakistan’s sovereignty and the cost paid by the average Pakistani as a blowback of strikes have continued unabated. The entire U.S.-led war on terror and successive Pakistani governments’ alleged support for US drone strikes helped terrorist outfits considerably, as they viewed such dynamics to be contrary to their worldview and provided justification to employ violence against Pakistani civilians.  Hence, looking back, the average Pakistani may contrast U.S. drone policy with China’s confidence in Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts, viewing the United States as a symbol of hegemony and imperialism.

An area which could work for both countries would be to transfer drone technology to the Pakistani establishment to conduct strikes on its own territory and defeat militancy, which is also a stated U.S. goal. Yet that largely depends on whether trust deficits could be allayed in the near future, and whether the upcoming administration in Washington after the 2016 elections would be receptive to Pakistan’s repeated calls for respecting its sovereignty.

If drone strikes continue the way they did under the Obama administration, then brazen violations of international law would continue to be cited by Pakistani scholars and citizens.  The Peshawar High Court has already ruled that such attacks constitute war crimes. This is a damning indictment for the United States and should push them to do more to address this issue, the most divisive in their relationship with Pakistan.


Editors’ note: Last week, President Obama kicked off his final year as president with the annual State of the Union Address. The speech seemed an auspicious time to ask questions about the President’s legacy, and for the current group of SAV Visiting Fellows to reflect on the consequence of American policies in South Asia during this period. In this four-part series titled “Obama’s Legacy in South Asia,” Hamzah Rifaat will explore the Obama administration’s drone policy in Pakistan’s tribal areas—Did they stop terror, or did they fan the flames of extremism? Or maybe both? Aditi Malhotra‘s article will examine U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and their impact on regional stability. Amina Afzal will be writing from Pakistan on whether the Obama administration tilted towards India, especially in the nuclear realm. And finally, Tridivesh Singh will look at whether President Obama was able to dehyphenate U.S. policy towards India and Pakistan, and what the rebalance has meant for South Asia.

Hopefully these articles will contribute to a vigorous debate in India, Pakistan, and Washington, D.C.


Image: SS MIRZA-AFP, Getty

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