Will US drones return to Pakistan?

SlateJune 11, 2014 

Sunday’s attack by Taliban militants on Karachi airport seems as if it could be the last nail in the coffin of tentative peace talks between the Pakistani government and the Taliban, but another question is whether it could bring an end to a half-year pause in U.S. strikes against the Pakistani Taliban.

At least 27 people were killed in a night-long battle between authorities and 10 gunmen wearing military uniforms. The group reportedly included suicide bombers and hoped to hijack a plane. The attacks were reportedly ethnic Uzbeks, who have had a significant presence in Pakistan since the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan was routed from Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion in 2002.

A spokesman for the Tehrik-e-Taliban, or TTP, said the attack was in retaliation for the killing of their leader Hakimullah Mehsud in a CIA drone strike last November.

Following that killing, the Pakistani government reportedly asked the U.S. to refrain from launching drone strikes while it pursued peace talks with the Taliban that began last September.

According to data from the New America Foundation, the U.S. has not bombed Pakistan since Dec. 25. Prior to that, there hadn’t been a full month without a strike since 2011.

For a while there seemed to be some progress, with face-to-face talks between the two sides and the declaration of a ceasefire in March, but attacks resumed in April. With attacks against military and civilian targets, as well as military reprisals, ongoing, it’s been clear for some time that the talks have effectively collapsed.

Part of the problem may be that not all factions of the TTP may be on the same page when it comes to peace talks. It also seems unlikely that the government could accede to the Taliban’s demands, which are thought to include the release of hundreds of prisoners and a cutback of the Pakistani troop presence in the Waziristan region.

The ongoing reduction of U.S. troops could change the way the drone war is conducted on both sides of the porous Afghan-Pakistan border, but with the reason for the drone pause now effectively removed after a week of violence that culminated in Sunday’s attack, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the current lull turned out to be short-lived.

Secretary of State John Kerry also suggested Monday that the five Afghan Taliban leaders exchanged for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl could still be targeted for strikes if they returned to the battlefield. Judging by recent news in Yemen, the Obama administration still considers the drone a valuable weapon in its arsenal. And judging by an Islamabad court’s recent filing of murder charges against a former CIA station chief, Pakistani views of the practice during the six-month lull haven’t changed much either. Joshua Keating writes for Slate.

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