Pakistan’s just-elected new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, is officially the thorn in the side of President Obama’s beloved Predator drones. In a speech just before getting sworn into office Wednesday, Sharif announced he would no longer allow the U.S. to execute drone strikes on Pakistani soil. “This daily routine of drone attacks, this chapter shall now be closed,” Sharif said before parliament. “We respect the sovereignty of others and they should also respect our sovereignty and independence. This campaign should come to an end.” Whether it ever will come to an end, well, that’s a tall order.
It took years for the U.S. and Pakistan to acknowledge their dirty agreement allowing the U.S. to begin and extend its targeted killing program over Pakistani airspace as militants proliferated across the country. As far back as mid-2004, the Pakistani government wouldn’t acknowledge they were permitting C.I.A. strikes because it could be seen as Pakistan bending for the big, bad U.S., a challenge to their sovereignty. But the strikes quickly deepened the rift between American diplomats and Pakistan, an important American ally with a fast growing nuclear arsenal in one of the most pivotal regions on Earth. That rift deepened arguments within the Obama administration, leading to a standoff between then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. From Mark Mazetti’s Way of the Knife:
This turf battle spread to Washington, and a month after Bin Laden was killed, President Obama’s top advisers were arguing in a National Security Council meeting over who really was in charge in Pakistan. At the June 2011 meeting, Munter, who participated via secure video link, began making his case that he should have veto power over specific drone strikes.
Panetta cut Munter off, telling him that the C.I.A. had the authority to do what it wanted in Pakistan. It didn’t need to get the ambassador’s approval for anything.
“I don’t work for you,” Panetta told Munter, according to several people at the meeting.
But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came to Munter’s defense. She turned to Panetta and told him that he was wrong to assume he could steamroll the ambassador and launch strikes against his approval.
“No, Hillary,” Panetta said, “it’s you who are flat wrong.”
Pakistan reportedly stopped consenting to U.S. drone strikes altogether back in September, and Obama’s big drone speech last month represented a shift in policy that White House officials had long said was focused on smoothing over relations with Pakistan as unmanned targeting increasingly centered on terror havens like Yemen, but the first reported strike since the speech killed a Taliban commander in Pakistan. A poll released by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News today shows 66 percent of Americans support drone strikes, with high approval from both political parties.
So now Sharif, facing huge financial and domestic problems, is using his new platform to posture up to the U.S. and taking a stand against the drone strike program. Whether or not he’ll follow through on that promise — whether or not he even can — will be interesting to watch.