By Dr Mohammad Taqi
May 30, 2013
Mr Obama’s talk had the ingredients of being remembered as a landmark speech that ended the state of a perpetual war that the US has been in since September 11, 2001
Last week President Barack Obama delivered an extraordinary speech at the National Defence University at Fort McNair, Washington, DC. The speech that addressed an array of issues from the post-9/11 hunt for al Qaeda to the concerns regarding the civil liberties in the US has drawn flak from both the left and the right. The left-liberal criticism has been that Mr Obama said too little too late and did not commit to enough oversight of the programmes like the drones campaign or, as some wanted, scrap it altogether. The right-wing has disparaged the US president for somehow capitulating to the terrorists by saying that the War on Terror (WoT), like any other war, cannot be an endless campaign. Overall, Mr Obama’s talk had the ingredients of being remembered eventually as a landmark speech that ended the state of a perpetual war that the US has been in since September 11, 2001.
But the fact probably is that Mr Obama has put the WoT on a sliding scale: to be ratcheted up when and where the threat is intense and imminent and to be dialled down where the danger has been neutralised or contained. The immediate test of this sliding scale WoT may be coming up in Afghanistan in the run up to the 2014 drawdown and in the period following the withdrawal of the US combat troops. Mr Obama actually seemed quite clear about the issue saying, “First, we must finish the work of defeating al Qaeda and its associated forces. In Afghanistan, we will complete our transition to Afghan responsibility for security. Our troops will come home. Our combat mission will come to an end. And we will work with the Afghan government to train security forces, and sustain a counter-terrorism force, which ensures that al Qaeda can never again establish a safe-haven to launch attacks against us or our allies.”
President Obama discussed the US drones campaign, the bulk of which has been in the FATA between Pakistan and Afghanistan, at length. Almost nine years to the date since June 2004 when the drones started hitting terrorist targets in that region, for the first time a US president has stated unequivocally that the drones are both effective and legal. Mr Obama qualified his position with expressing concerns about the occasional collateral damage and the civilian casualties and pledged to minimise both in future by seeking a ‘near-certainty’ that no civilians are harmed. He emphasised, however, that there is a wide gap between the US estimates of the civilian casualties and reports by certain NGOs. As expected, he has indicated, without naming them, an end to what are described as the ‘signature’ attacks that target individuals or groups based on behaviour patterns deemed compatible with terrorist activity rather than a confirmed identity in which case it is termed a ‘personality strike’. The latter will continue.
Pledging to target only the al Qaeda and its associated forces elsewhere in the world, Mr Obama said: “In the Afghan war theatre, we must support our troops until the transition is complete at the end of 2014. That means we will continue to take strikes against high value al Qaeda targets, but also against forces that are massing to support attacks on coalition forces. However, by the end of 2014, we will no longer have the same need for force protection, and the progress we have made against core al Qaeda will reduce the need for unmanned strikes.” For all practical purposes the Afghan war theatre includes the FATA, indicating that the incoming Pakistani civilian government will have to grapple with the drones even as the strikes potentially dwindle down. The groups, operating out of territories over which Pakistan claims sovereignty, like the Haqqani terrorist network that many do not describe as al Qaeda but which remains a massive enablers of that enterprise, as well as the assorted Taliban of Pakistani and Afghan origin, a variety of the transnational jihadists and gangs like Gulbuddin Hikmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami, all remain on the drones target list for the foreseeable future.
Two days before Mr Obama’s speech the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) released its report titled “Drones: Myths and Reality in Pakistan.” The 49-page report, which requires a more detailed look, does bust some myths about the drones as triggers of militancy and militant recruitment as well as the number of civilian causalities and flays the bias of the ‘unbiased’ groups about both these concerns. The ICG has made 10 policy recommendations to the governments of the US and Pakistan. Some of the suggestions to the US government like respecting the international (humanitarian) law, ending ‘signature’ strikes, providing a rigorous congressional and/or judicial oversight and moving the drones programmes to under the Department of Defence, have been addressed and adopted by Mr Obama in his speech. But the most important one calls for first “implementing existing conditions on the military aid to Pakistan if its military or elements within it do not end support to the Haqqani network, the Quetta Shura, factions of the Pakistani Taliban, the Lashkar-e-Taiba” and “as a last resort imposing targeted and incremental sanctions, including travel and visa bans and the freezing of financial assets of key military leaders and military-controlled intelligence agencies responsible for supporting extremist elements that plan and conduct attacks from Pakistani territory against its neighbourhood and beyond.”
The ICG has asked Pakistan to ‘enable independent assessment of drone strike casualties and impact on FATA’ as the current reporting is indirect and biased and/or under duress from the Pakistani military and the militants. The report also calls to ‘ensure that the federal cabinet takes the lead in formulating comprehensive, nationwide and civilian-led counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency policies’, ‘make the extension of the state’s writ in FATA the centrepiece of the counter-terrorism agenda’ and to ‘Establish clear guidelines for remedial action if and when innocent civilians are injured or killed, whether by US drones or the Pakistani military, and create a compensation fund for such victims.’
Mr Nawaz Sharif, at the head of the new Pakistani government, will have a tough balancing act at his hands as various terrorist groups backed by the Pakistani security establishment make a push for Kabul on the US watch. The new Pakistani prime minister and his foreign policy and national security advisors would be well advised to grab a copy of the well-balanced ICG report as along with Mr Obama’s speech it has serious policy implications for the region.
Postscript: Since Mr Obama’s speech a drone strike has now been reported in Miranshah, North Waziristan area.
Dr Mohammad Taqi can be reached at email@example.com and he tweets @mazdaki