2 Aug 2013

An end to US drone wars – or just spin?

It sounded like hope for the Pakistani civilians living in the shadow of drones, but is the US suggestion that it could stop its anti-terror campaign in the Middle East country to be believed?

John Kerry says the US drone strike programme in Pakistan could end soon (pictures: Getty/Reuters)

In the first ever comments from a White House official suggesting the Obama administration wants to end its drone war against terrorists in Pakistan, United States Secretary of State John Kerry said the programme could end “very, very soon.”

His comments came after the US and Pakistan agreed on Thursday to restart high-level talks on a range of issues, including security.

I think the programme will end as we have eliminated most of the threat and continue to eliminate it. John Kerry

“In the last few years we’ve experienced a few differences,” Mr Kerry said. “We cannot allow events that might divide us in a small way distract from the common values and the common interests that unite us in big ways.”

He sought to alleviate anger from Pakistan over CIA-led drone strikes, which the country claims violate its sovereignty.

Mr Kerry said: “I think the programme will end as we have eliminated most of the threat and continue to eliminate it.

“I think the president has a very real timeline and we hope it’s going to be very, very soon. I think it depends really on a number of factors, and we’re working with your government with respect to that.”

Civilian deaths

However, the US state department took a step back from Mr Kerry’s comments – saying that there is no timeline set out.

“Today, the secretary referenced the changes that we expect to take place in that programme over the course of time, but there is no exact timeline to provide,” spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

Estimates from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism suggest that the US has carried out a total of 371 drone strike in Pakistan, between 2004 and 2013. Of those attacks, 320 were carried out under Barack Obama’s stewardship.

In light of today’s discussion, we will continue this dialogue on how to stop this policy of drone attacks as far as US is concerned. Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan security advisor

It is estimated that between 3,500 and 4,500 people have been killed in the strikes, and that up to 928 of those were civilians. It is also estimated that as many as 195 children have been killed.

Drone strikes have been deployed in a range of countries, as the US tries to tackle terrorist elements, and more specifically al-Qaeda. Between 2002 and 2013 it is estimated that up to 358 people have been killed in drone strikes in Yemen, including up to 52 civilians.

Up to 15 civilians, in a total of 27 people, are alleged to have been killed in drone strikes in Somalia.

‘Empty words’

However Kat Craig, legal director of the abuses in counter-terrorism team at Reprieve, said Mr Kerry’s comments were “empty words”.

She said: “John Kerry’s comments suggest the Obama administration is more concerned with spin than the reality on the ground: civilians are being killed and whole communities terrorised by the US illegal drone programme.

“While Mr Kerry may have sought to reassure Pakistan with empty words, the reality is that the secretive drone war is spreading around the world. Yesterday, a US drone killed four Yemenis on the very day that Yemen’s President Hadi met with Obama.

“What is still more alarming is that Mr Kerry’s already weak words were soon contradicted by his own department.

“Even a former CIA counter-terror director has warned that the drone programme risks creating ‘dedicated enemies of the west’ where they didn’t exist before – so it is not only morally wrong but simply short-sighted for the US to continue down this path.”

UN selects its first unarmed drone

The United Nations said on Thursday that it had selected its first unarmed surveillance drone, which will be tried out by peacekeepers in eastern Congo.

The UN has opted for the Italian-made Falco, which is "capable of carrying a range of payloads including several types of high-resolution sensors".

The main international user of the Falco is the Pakistan airforce.

Fresh start

On his trip to Pakistan, Mr Kerry met with newly elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and national security adviser Sartaj Aziz, and held a three-hour discussion with Pakistan’s army chief, General Ashram Parvez Kayani.

Mr Aziz said: “In light of today’s discussion, we will continue this dialogue on how to stop this policy of drone attacks as far as US is concerned.”

The US views Sharif’s election as an opportunity to start a new chapter in US/Pakistan relations. During the trip, Mr Kerry also announced that Mr Sharif had been invited to visit President Obama in Washington in the autumn.

Mr Aziz said it is a good time to restart high-level talks because it follows an election where, for the first time in the country’s 66-year history, there was a peaceful transfer of power from one civilian government to another.

“As we look into the future, we want trade, more trade, larger investment, and cooperation in development, including education as the building blocks of a new and renewed partnership,” Mr Aziz said.