On Tuesday, my colleague Dan Markey published a new CFR Policy Innovation Memorandum (PIM), “Support Process Over Personalities in Pakistan.” In it, he argues that the United States should avoid playing favorites as Pakistani leadership transitions unfold over the course of 2013. As part of his broader argument, he suggests that the U.S. government should refrain from drone strikes during the campaign season prior to parliamentary elections. I’ve asked him to write a guest post about this aspect of the PIM.
In my PIM, the argument against U.S. drone strikes is a relatively narrow and pragmatic one. Whatever you think about the effectiveness of drone strikes in Pakistan, it is clear that they offer propaganda opportunities to parties most opposed to cooperation with the United States. In the supercharged environment of national elections, drone strikes could tip the balance in Pakistan’s new national assembly, making it even harder for Washington to deal with whatever government takes shape. With this in mind, I argue that U.S. policymakers should be even more cautious in their use of drones than usual, and that Washington should suspend strikes except against imminent terrorist attacks or al-Qaeda’s number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The United States should execute this shift in drone policy silently. Even if—as Micah argues in his Council Special Report Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies—Washington would be smart to review its overall approach to the use of drones, U.S. officials will certainly want to avoid steps that could severely limit their flexibility in Pakistan. Washington would not, for instance, want its moratorium on drone strikes during the campaign season to lead Pakistanis to believe that they can turn off the strikes forever.
As a practical matter, however, it looks like some sort of renegotiation of the terms of U.S.-Pakistan counterterror cooperation, including drones, looms in the near future. If Pakistani opposition parties take power in the national assembly, if President Zardari fails to secure his job in September, and if the army chief retires in November, the United States will face a new cast of characters in all of Pakistan’s top national security jobs. Exactly how the U.S. drone campaign will survive these dramatic changes remains unclear.