Pakistan once was the focal point of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s attention, when Adm. Mike Mullen personally made it his mission for years to keep U.S. relations open and active with Islamabad’s top general and intelligence chief. But in the years since those players left office, President Barack Obama downsized the war, declared an official end to combat operations in Afghanistan, and the ISIS war in Iraq and Syria took the spotlight. Pakistan — specifically, U.S.-Pakistani national security relations, as an issue — has gone relatively quiet.
But the war in Afghanistan has not. Whether by circumstance of timing or purposeful policy choice, U.S. leaders are renewing attention on Afghanistan under President Donald Trump with additional troops, intelligence, and resources, and they are renewing pressure on Pakistan to get back into the fight.
Pakistani leaders, once again, aren’t responding to the whip the way Washington would like. The latest sign: The Pakistani Senate last week passed a resolution recommending the government demand compensation from the U.S. for deaths and property damage caused by drone strikes. It has no power unilaterally to compel the U.S. to do so. But it is one of several moves politicians and military officials there have made in recent weeks pushing back on the demand that they should fall in line with Trump’s policy goals.
The U.S. drone war on terrorists in Pakistan is nothing like it was seven years ago, when, by some estimates, a new air strike occurred once every four days. The American government rarely releases statistics about that corner of the global war on terrorism, but independent observers have confirmed a handful of strikes in recent years. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism lists five confirmed U.S. strikes in 2017.
Why ask for compensation now?
Obama escalated the United States’ secret drone strike program run by the intelligence community, targeting militants outside those traditional combat zones of Afghanistan and Iraq with armed, unmanned aircraft. The escalation of the extrajudicial drone war on alleged “high-value target” fighters is well-documented, and marred by several high-profile incidents in which American strikes killed innocent civilians. By its own reporting, the U.S. government doesn’t always know whom a strike killed.
The Pakistani senate’s resolution is a step within a years-long effort to get both countries’ governments to acknowledge those inadvertent consequences of the war, said Jen Gibson, a human rights lawyer specializing in counterterrorism and the U.S. drone program with the London-based advocacy group Reprieve, which argues America’s lethal drone strikes amount to illegal “assassinations.”
“This is eight, nine years on since Obama really ramped up the program, [more than] a decade after the first one under Bush, and the issue’s not dying,” she said. “These families still want some sort of justice for what’s happened, and it’s hard to argue against the need for some sort of transparency and accountability.”
The U.S. has a mixed history with condolence payments in other countries, including in Afghanistan and Iraq, where such payments have totaled tens of millions of dollars to family members of civilian victims since the start of the wars. Though they’re made on a reportedly inconsistent basis, the Defense Department argues the payments have not only addressed humanitarian concerns, but have served strategic ends as well by helping repair local relations. In Pakistan, it’s more difficult for U.S. officials to verify — or to admit publicly — civilian casualties and award compensation.
Gibson said Pakistani leaders are paying attention as Trump loosens restrictions on America’s air wars elsewhere and intensifies pressure on Islamabad to fight terrorism.
That pressure has come from all parts of the Trump administration. In announcing his Afghanistan war strategy, Trump criticized Pakistan for offering “safe havens” to extremists and said “that will have to change…immediately.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson redelivered that message when he visited Pakistan in October, as did Defense Secretary Jim Mattis during his trip to Islamabad this month. Mattis “reiterated that Pakistan must redouble its efforts to confront militants and terrorists operating within the country,” according to the Pentagon, but reportedly he toned down the administration’s threats to retaliate against Islamabad if Pakistani leaders did not cooperate as Trump demanded.
Instead, two weeks after Mattis’ visit the Pakistani Senate passed the resolution demanding compensation from the U.S. for future drone strikes .
“Part of what’s probably driving what’s going on right now — other than the fact there are still people on the ground trying to get compensation and acknowledgement for victims — is that this comes amidst a ramping up of the rhetoric of the Trump administration in relation to Pakistan,” Gibson said.
Mattis’ effort was scorned by critics in Washington of the Pentagon’s neverending tries to get Pakistan’s permission to fight terrorism the American way. “Congratulations, Secretary Mattis. You’ve become the latest US official to serve as lead vocalist on a hopelessly broken record,” wrote the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Michael Kugelman, in a CNN commentary.
Other Pakistani pushback
Pakistani leaders have made their own efforts to convince new Trump administration leaders of their commitment to fighting terrorism. Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif and Gen. Zubair Mahmood Hayat came to Washington in October to meet with officials including Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security advisor, and Hayat’s counterpart, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford. Asif said Trump officials have created a “trust deficit” with Pakistan, which should get more credit for what it has done to fight terrorists.
Back in Pakistan, Trump’s threats have not gone unanswered. Earlier this month, the head of the Pakistan Air Force, Air Chief Marshal Sohail Aman, threatened to shoot down any U.S. drone in Pakistan’s airspace.
And while the Defense Department officially conducts no airstrikes in Pakistan, it has been conducting a number of raids and airstrikes along the border in Afghanistan as the new administration takes a “more active” posture. Pentagon officials just told Congress, in a rare detail that Bloomberg first reported, that special operations forces in Afghanistan had conducted more than 420 airstrikes from June through late November.
With U.S. aircraft regularly flying so close to Pakistani airspace — close enough that on the border region it’s unclear whether some strikes fall on the Afghan or Pakistani side — statements like Aman’s register on the Pentagon’s radar. But the U.S. and Pakistan continue to work together on areas of common interest, and American officials say they’re “reliable partners.”
“The United States and Pakistan militaries consistently communicate on counterterrorism operations near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Mike Andrews said in an email.
But privately, Pakistani officials reportedly refused to “do more” when Mattis asked during his visit this month. That refusal came just weeks after Pakistan released from house arrest against Washington’s objections one individual that the U.S. had listed as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist.