While on an official visit to Islamabad last week, Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that the Obama administration has a “very real timeline” for ending the U.S. drone program in Pakistan, and that “we hope it’s going to be very, very soon.” The State Department jumped in to clarify Kerry’s surprising comments, explaining that there is no definite timetable and that “in no way would we ever deprive ourselves of a tool to fight a threat if it arises.”
Kerry clearly got out ahead of the rest of the administration. It is possible that his remarks were a mere gaffe or, at the other extreme, a calculated trial balloon. But the most likely explanation is that the secretary of state’s words reflect another round in a complicated negotiation over the drone campaign -- not between Washington and Islamabad, but between the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
That interagency dispute has already seen several heated rounds, including the 2011 dustup between Cameron Munter, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, and Leon Panetta, the CIA director at the time. As far as is possible to discern, the CIA has won every important round of this debate. Within the Obama administration, the State Department’s concerns over the damaging political fallout from drone strikes have never held much weight relative to the CIA’s demonstrated ability to remove top terrorists from the battlefield. And with John Brennan, a man who clearly enjoys the president’s trust and has been intimately involved in all of the administration’s drone discussions, now at the helm in Langley, there is little reason to anticipate that the agency will have any less clout when it comes to defending the program for as long as it sees fit.
Still, an interagency compromise is possible. Rather than pressing for an end to the drone campaign along some preordained timeline with nothing comparable to replace it, critics within the U.S. government should