Seema Sirohi

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Seema Sirohi is a foreign policy analyst currently based in Washington. She has worked for The Telegraph (Calcutta), Outlook and Ananda Bazar Patrika in the past, reporting from Geneva, Rome, Bratislava, Belgrade, Paris, Islamabad and Washington on a range of issues. Author of Sita’s Curse: Stories of Dowry Victims, she has been a commentator on BBC, CNN and NPR.

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Obama’s new guidelines on drone strikes: Pak will remain on radar

May 24, 2013

Washington: President Obama’s new counter-terrorism doctrine is an attempt to restrict the controversial drone programme but without losing his prerogative to still strike wherever and whenever necessary.

That largely means Pakistan where top terrorist leaders of al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Taliban remain – some in plain sight and some in hiding. There will be fewer strikes, no doubt, and only after they meet a higher threshold but Pakistan will remain very much on the active radar of the CIA.

Obama did not say as much in his speech, which was made partly to blunt domestic and international criticism, but official sources have been briefing US media on the classified portions of the new doctrine. The “guidance” on how the policy would be executed apparently states the CIA will continue to watch over Pakistan while the rest of the drone programme shifts to military control.

Pakistan will be treated as an exception in the new doctrine but the case will be reviewed periodically for progress against al-Qaeda leaders. The programme will shift to US military control when troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is complete.

Associated Press

Barack Obama speaks about national security. Associated Press

The new policy tightens the standards and says that drone strikes can be ordered when targets cannot be captured and pose a “continuing” and “imminent” threat to America. Last heard al-Qaeda’s top leader Ayman Zawahiri and Taliban’s Mullah Omar were both believed to be hiding in Pakistan. They haven’t been captured and are unlikely to ever meet that fate. Will they have a meeting with drones is another question.

Obama, a master rhetorician, made three references to Pakistan – all positive – in keeping with the sudden climate change in Washington forced by the 2014 deadline. Relations with Pakistan must be mended and maintained until US troops are safely out of Afghanistan.

He talked of “thousands of Pakistani soldiers” who have died fighting “extremists.” He mentioned a Pakistani American family and their dreams. Finally he said something that would surely please Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani: “Our operation in Pakistan against Osama bin Laden cannot be the norm.” Obviously not, because no one thinks Navy seals are going to undertake such risky operations routinely. So why say it?

Well, Obama was putting the final balm on Kayani’s wounded pride and all other violations of sovereignty that Rawalpindi counts against the Americans. He may have got some useful advice from Secretary of State John Kerry, who knows the General well. Kerry negotiated with Kayani intensively and won hard-fought concessions, including the tail of a stealth helicopter, which went down in the bin Laden raid.

It is unclear whether Obama’s change of heart on Pakistan is strategic or merely tactical. Stories in Washington are legion about how Obama saw through Kayani’s white paper on Afghanistan, which was an anti-India treatise. And how he located the cancer of terrorism and coldly ordered drone strikes. But then the compulsions of 2014 began bubbling up.

Whether Obama can strike the right balance between being tough on terrorism and keeping the Generals amused is the question.

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