President Obama’s pledge to scale back lethal drone strikes against suspected terrorists drew praise in Pakistan and Yemen, where almost all of the strikes take place — and from the U.N. official investigating U.S. targeted killing.
U.N. Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights Ben Emmerson said the speech should be welcomed as “a declaration that the U.S. war with al Qaeda and its associated forces is coming to an end.”
In Pakistan Friday, a statement from the foreign ministry reiterated Islamabad’s opposition to the drone program, but said the newly elected government welcomed Mr. Obama’s acknowledgement that “force alone cannot make us safer.”
It was “Pakistan’s long-standing stance that a comprehensive strategy was acquired to address the root causes that foster terrorism and extremism,” the statement said.
U.S. strikes by remotely piloted drone aircraft in Pakistan’s lawless and remote tribal belt along the Afghan border have long been unpopular in that country, where anti-Americanism and Islamic extremism are rife, and where many believe the strikes have killed thousands of innocent bystanders, although the likely civilian death toll is much lower.
The New America Foundation think tank maintains a database of the strikes, combining reports in major news media that rely on local officials and eyewitness accounts. According to their figures, the CIA and the U.S. military have carried out 416 drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, resulting in 3,364 estimated deaths, including extremists and civilians.
Strikes in Pakistan spiked in 2010 under Obama to 122. But the rate has dropped to 12 so far this year. The CIA and the military have carried out some 69 strikes in Yemen, with the Yemeni government’s permission.
Nawaz Sharif, the newly minted Pakistani prime minister, spoke out against the drone strikes during the recent election campaign, and the country’s parliament has called for an end to the program, which is regarded by many as illegal under international law and an insult to Pakistan’s national sovereignty.
Mr. Obama, in his speech Thursday at the National Defense University said he would continue the program, but published new guidelines which he said would govern who could be targeted and when strikes could be carried out. The target must present an “imminent and continuing” threat to Americans, and there must be “near certainty” that there will be no civilian casualties.
The foreign ministry statement said Islamabad “has consistently maintained that the drone strikes are counter-productive, entail loss of innocent civilian lives, have human rights and humanitarian implications and violate the principles of national sovereignty, territorial integrity and international law.”
In his speech, Mr. Obama acknowledged that the strikes had damaged relations with Pakistan, and he praised the sacrifices of the country’s security forces, several thousands of whom have been killed in clashes with extremists and terror attacks.
“We appreciate President Obama’s acknowledgement and recognition of the sacrifices made by Pakistan,” said the foreign ministry.
Earlier this year, Pakistani officials told Mr. Emmerson, the UN rapporteur, that the civilian government had never approved the program. But Mr. Emmerson, a British barrister, said recently in Washington he could not rule out the possibility that military or intelligence officials in Islamabad had tacitly given approval to their U.S. counterparts.
On Friday, Mr. Emmerson called the president’s speech “historic.”
It should “be welcomed as a highly significant step towards greater transparency and accountability; and as a declaration that the US war with al Qaeda and its associated forces is coming to an end,” he said in a statement.