According to reports from Pakistan, the first drone strike under President Obama's new drone strike policy occurred this morning in North Waziristan. How it was different than previous strikes isn't exactly clear — but there's a new checklist, and new scrutiny from across the globe.
The attack (about which details are understandably sketchy) appears to have targeted Wali ur-Rehman, the second-in-command for a Pakistani Taliban group. (The Taliban denies the report.) The Independent offers some of the details that are known:
Reports said two missiles were fired from the unmanned drone and hit a house near the town of Miran Shah in North Waziristan. Pakistani intelligence officials told the Associated Press those killed were suspected militants, though there was no independent verification of such claims.
Pakistani intelligence sources says that Taliban second top commander Wali -u-Rehmanhas been killed in drone attack twitter.com/Mashaalradio/s…— Radio Mashaal RFE (@Mashaalradio) May 29, 2013
According to various media reports and data collected from non-governmental organizations, Pakistan has been the primary target for such strikes. The New America Foundation created a map of the strikes in the country to date, most of which apparently were launched by the CIA. The organization puts the total number of strikes in Pakistan at 356 — including today's. Since 2010, the number of strikes in the country has declined significantly.
In his speech last week, President Obama outlined a new process for drone strikes that suggested both that the decline would continue and that they would be conducted by the military, not intelligence agencies. Or, more accurately, he for the first time acknowledged the existence of a drone program and explained how the government would refine its protocol moving forward. The new process, as articulated in a document released to the media, would include some external oversight body (which does not yet exist) and increased controls before a strike occurred: assurances that the target was an ongoing threat, that he or she could not be captured by local law enforcement, that there was as little risk of striking non-targeted people as possible.
One goal of the refined policy was, in the President's words, to "rebuild [the] important partnership" with Pakistan fractured by ongoing attacks on their territory. The immediate response from leaders in that country was mixed (as it was from leaders in this country). The Washington Post compiled reactions, noting that "the Pakistani foreign ministry has reacted cautiously and avoided comments." And:
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Shahzad Mirza Akbar, a human rights lawyer based in Pakistan, said drones will be a big challenge for the incoming government, and despite Obama’s new rules, Nawaz Sharif, who will become the new prime minister, will face legal problems if the government does not challenge U.S. drone strikes.
According to The Independent, that "incoming government" arrived today in the region where the strike occurred.
The party of Imran Khan, which is set to lead a coalition government in northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province, is also strongly opposed to the drones. The regional assembly, based in Peshawar, was on today sworn in.
Shireen Mazari, a senior member of Mr Khan’s party, said on social media: “Another drone strike after elections. Just before KP assembly sworn in. US hostile intent clear. We will make r [sic] voice clear also.”
Wired's Spencer Ackerman agrees that today's attack didn't do the administration much good in its attempt to shift perceptions of its drone policy. He applies Obama's new checklist to ur-Rehman and finds it lacking.
Did Wali ur-Rehman pose a “continuing, imminent threat” to U.S. persons?
Hard to say. Rehman was not a member of al-Qaida. He was said to be poised to inherit the leadership of the Pakistani Taliban, which is an ally of al-Qaida’s residual core leadership in Pakistan. In 2010, the Pakistani Taliban boasted of training the naturalized U.S. citizen Faisal Shahzad for his ultimately unsuccessful bombing attempt in Times Square. The State Department put a $5 million bounty on ur-Rehman that year, but stopped short blaming him for Shahzad, although it did blame him for the deadly 2009 attack on a secret CIA base in Afghanistan. The group’s involvement in ongoing plots against the U.S. is less evident, however, and Obama explicitly said “America does not take strikes to punish individuals.”
The President was clear in his speech last week that the process he articulated was a goal, not an existing structure. It requires, for example, the creation of that secret drone court or some equivalent. It requires far more expansive rationalization than apparently existed previously — rationalization that may exist in the ur-Rehman case. By giving his speech last week, however, Obama intended to assure Americans and Pakistanis that drone strikes would not continue as they had.
The Christian Science Monitor reports that today's strike killed at least six people, wounding four others. Perhaps the drone responsible was launched from an Air Force base, not a CIA one. By all outward appearances, though, this was business as usual.
Photo: Ur-Rehman, center, pictured in July 2011. (AP)