Ex-US ambassador to Pakistan warns on drone strikes

Drone strikes in Pakistan have grown “exponentially” under President Obama and risk losing their value if overused, former U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker warned Monday.

The United States has launched 336 such strikes over the past decade, according to The Long War Journal — all but 10 of them under President Obama. The strikes have created lingering resentment in Pakistan and are expected to play a major role in parliamentary elections next month.

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“I would not expect whoever emerges as prime minister simply taking a position that this is over. There will be those discussions, and I think they're going to be healthy ones that will lead to some understandings on how this whole program is implemented,” Crocker told reporters during a conference call organized by the Council on Foreign Relations. “We can only do this in cooperation with and with the approval of the Pakistani government, the civilian leadership as well as the military.

“The increase in drone strikes over the last four years has been exponential. Sometimes I'm concerned that it is perhaps inadvertently becoming a strategy rather than a tactic. It can be a very effective tactic judiciously used.”

The Pakistani government says publicly it does not condone the strikes on suspected al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, even as the Obama administration says it has the tacit approval of the Pakistani military to go ahead. Crocker said hashing things out with a fresh Pakistani government “may not be fun all the time, but I would welcome that post-election discussion.”

The comments come as Pakistan prepares not only for legislative elections in May, but also for a presidential poll in September and the retirements of the Army chief and the chief justice later in the year. Crocker said it was vital for the United States to do what it can to ensure stability during those transitions in a country where he's seen “almost all the trend lines running the wrong way” since he was ambassador in 2004 – 2007.

“It's not a failed state, but you could argue it is a failing state,” he said. “I think, we as the United States and, more broadly as the international community, need to do whatever may be helpful to the success of these elections... From the point of view of U.S. interests, I don't think it matters that much who emerges in first place and who forms the next government, as long as the process of getting them there is broadly seen as legitimate.”

Many U.S. lawmakers however want to end U.S. support for Pakistan. Crocker said the United States needs to show it's committed to the stability of the region, not headed for the exits.

“Part of this trust issue is, is the U.S. a reliable ally? The same question we ask ourselves about Pakistan. And both of us have, I think, some valid reasons for proposing it. But we do need to find a way to get over it,” he said. “My view is, the Pakistanis will hedge their bets on the Taliban, unless or until they are convinced both of our intentions, along with those of the Kabul government, and our staying power. 

“We've been trying to signal both. That was one of the aims of our conclusion of a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan that runs until 2024 that President Obama signed in Kabul last May – not only a signal to Afghans that the U.S. is here to stay this time, but to Pakistanis.”