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 appreciate that the drones will likely retain their tactical value for the foreseeable future. A more realistic goal would be to change the drone program in ways that make it at least marginally more politically palatable in Islamabad and, by extension, more sustainable for the United States over the long haul. As outlined in my original essay below, one way to do this is to negotiate with Pakistan a list of “pre-authorized” targets and to implement mechanisms for compensating civilian victims, among other steps.

Of course, no serious negotiation with the Pakistanis can begin until Washington has a new plan with interagency buy-in. Judging from past history and from the rush to downplay Kerry’s recent comments, no such plan as yet exists.


For all its successes, the U.S. drone program in Pakistan is unlikely to survive much longer in its current form. Less than a week after his election on May 11, Pakistan’s new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, reportedly declared to his cabinet that “the policy of protesting against drone strikes for public consumption, while working behind the scenes to make them happen, is not on.” This fall, Pakistan’s national and provincial assemblies will elect a new president, likely a Sharif loyalist, and the prime minister will also select a new army chief. It is safe to say that these men are unlikely to follow their predecessors in offering tacit endorsements of the United States' expansive counterterrorism efforts. 

In other words, the United States is going to have to hammer out a new drone deal with Pakistan in the years ahead, one that is sensitive to Pakistan's own concerns and objectives. This will likely mean that Washington will face new constraints in its counterterrorism operations. But managed with care, a new agreement could put the targeted killing campaign against al Qaeda on firmer political footing without entirely eliminating its effectiveness.

Ever since its inception in 2004, the U.S. drone campaign in Pakistan has been stumbling along shaky legal and strategic ground. At various points in time, Washington and Islamabad constructed different fictions to enable the drone campaign. Before launching the first drone strike that killed Taliban leader Nek Muhammad in June 2004, Washington sought personal authorization from then President and army chief Pervez Musharraf. For several years thereafter, the Pakistani army claimed responsibility for all drone strikes, publicly denying (however implausibly) American intervention.

But the program’s remarkable success in killing al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, combined with the otherwise largely unaddressed problem of sanctuaries in Pakistan’s tribal areas, encouraged U.S. officials to expand their list of targets. As the program grew, and especially as Washington killed militants with suspected links to Pakistan’s own military and intelligence services, such as members of the Afghan Taliban–affiliated Haqqani Network, Pakistani officials shed the fiction that the strikes were their own. Islamabad instead bowed to what it perceived as a powerful domestic consensus against the drones and criticized the United States in increasingly shrill terms for violating Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty. Privately, however, Musharraf and his immediate successors -- including the civilian government led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the army under General Kayani -- continued to greenlight the drone program.

As the drone strikes mounted, the hypocrisy of the official Pakistani position became ever more difficult to hide. Opposition politician and former cricket star Imran Khan made the criticism of drones a centerpiece of his Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party’s election campaign in 2011 and 2012. And in early 2012, the Pakistani parliament unequivocally denounced the drone strikes and called for them to end. This unmistakable sovereign act called into question oft-repeated U.S. claims that Pakistan actually provides “tacit consent” for the drone campaign.

Pakistan's current and future leaders, starting with Nawaz Sharif, will have little reason to implicate themselves in the drone hypocrisy of their predecessors. Sharif is on sounder political footing than his predecessor, but -- as his top lieutenants are already signaling -- he cannot weather the political storm that is likely to result if the United States appears to blithely disregard his authority. Washington’s failure to shift its policy would lead Islamabad to escalate its diplomatic protests.

One step in this escalation has already happened, with Pakistan taking its case against drones to the international community by way of the United Nations. If Pakistani frustration mounts without yielding results, one can imagine Sharif’s new army chief threatening to shoot U.S. drones from the sky, just as past Pakistani leaders have threatened to take down helicopters that cross into the nation’s airspace. At that stage, Washington would likely pull the drones from normal operation rather than play a high-stakes game of chicken. (Indeed, Washington has a habit of taking extended breaks from drone strikes at sensitive periods: for instance, there were no strikes for over six weeks after the so-called Salala incident at the Afghan border.)

The question is whether Washington and Islamabad can find a deal that addresses Pakistani concerns without depriving the United States of a counterterrorism tool that has been more effective, at least in a tactical sense, than any other. Short of ending the drone program altogether, the only way that Pakistan’s leaders can credibly claim to assert their sovereign authority -- and thereby prove their nationalist credentials to political allies and adversaries alike -- is if Washington cedes to Islamabad a greater degree of control over the program, especially when it comes to target selection.

At one extreme, this would mean doing what a number of Pakistani leaders (including General Musharraf) have requested for years: placing the drones under Pakistani command. Of course, given the highly sensitive nature of drone technology, along with the fact that U.S. officials do not adequately trust their Pakistani counterparts to deploy the drones in ways that would effectively eliminate top terrorist leaders, this solution remains off the table in nearly any conceivable future.

Somewhat less pie-in-the-sky, if still unrealistic at this stage, would be the idea of disarming U.S. drones and leaving Pakistani forces to act as the “trigger pullers” whenever terrorist targets are identified. Strikes would then be launched by Pakistani Air Force jets, helicopters, or perhaps even artillery, and would use U.S. intelligence for target selection. This solution also has an assortment of practical problems, from the time lag between identifying targets and shooting at them to, once again, U.S. officials’ lack of faith in their Pakistani counterparts’ ability and desire to act on that intelligence in the first place.

Then there is the option of crafting a “dual-key” authority at the operational level, perhaps by informing Pakistani officers in real time as drone strikes are launched and by implementing a mutually acceptable mechanism through which Islamabad could veto a specific strike, or at least raise it up the chain of command in a timely manner. Versions of a dual-key approach have been tried in the past, with some success. But given the fraught terms of cooperation between Washington and Islamabad in recent years, it is hard to imagine U.S. officials accepting this sort of arrangement, at least not yet. The real-time nature of the decision process would limit the potential for unwanted leaks or tip-offs to targets, but U.S. officials would still be wary that Pakistani officials could acquire too much knowledge of the drone program and its capabilities. If political trust improves over time, however, this might be a useful model for cooperation.

A final option -- and the only realistic compromise at present -- would be for Washington to seek Islamabad’s pre-authorization for specific targets and zones for strikes. The United States would retain full operational control over drone missions, and unlike the earliest stage in the drone program, when Musharraf’s explicit approval was required to kill Nek Muhammad, this process could provide blanket authority for a much longer (mutually agreed, if not publicly disclosed) target list. In return, Pakistani leaders would acknowledge publicly the terms of the new arrangement. Accompanying this preauthorization regime, Washington and Islamabad could establish a mechanism for reviewing claims of civilian losses and providing appropriate compensation, as the United States has done in Afghanistan and Iraq. In bringing the program out of the shadows, U.S. operational authority for the drones would almost certainly have to shift from the CIA to the Pentagon, as the Obama administration has already said it plans to do in other countries.

Admittedly, this final compromise option would be painful for both Islamabad and Washington. Pakistani leaders would finally have to come clean to their people about authorizing drone strikes. That would eliminate even the thin veneer of deniability that past leaders have maintained to protect themselves from political fallout. It would also place Sharif’s party firmly on the blacklists of the Pakistani Taliban and other targeted groups, which to date have enjoyed slightly more ambiguous relationships.

For their part, U.S. counterterror officials would chafe at any preauthorization program. This would be especially true if the target list excluded individuals, such as senior Afghan Taliban commanders, with whom the Pakistanis would prefer to maintain ties. A preauthorization regime would also mean foregoing the controversial U.S. practice of signature strikes, in which drones have been used to attack individuals who fit the profile of terrorists -- for example, people who move about in armed convoys or visit known terrorist camps -- but whose identities are not yet known to U.S. officials.

The new drone deal would be premised on the assumption that the United States is prepared to accept less frequent drone strikes than it has become accustomed to. So one potentially insurmountable stumbling block to this compromise would be if Washington planned to use the drone campaign as a primary tool for shaping the battlefield in Afghanistan, for instance by intensifying strikes against the Haqqani Network in the FATA’s North Waziristan agency. Pakistani leaders would almost certainly reject this strategy. Under such conditions, however, it is hard to imagine anything other than a tense and conflict-prone relationship between Washington and Islamabad, whether or not any new drone deal has been negotiated.

But officials in Washington would be wise not to let relations with Pakistan deteriorate to that point. The United States faces potential challenges in Pakistan that are even more daunting than the war in Afghanistan or the fight against al Qaeda. Nuclear-armed and battling a hardened Islamist insurgency, Pakistan is on track to be the fourth most populous country in the world by midcentury. Pakistan, in short, is here to stay -- as is Nawaz Sharif, at least for the immediate future. Sharif may not be the man that the United States would choose to lead Pakistan, but he is one that Washington would be wise to learn how to bargain with.

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  • DANIEL MARKEY is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the forthcoming No Exit From Pakistan: America's Tortured Relationship with Islamabad.
  • More By Daniel Markey