WASHINGTON — There were more drone strikes in Pakistan last month than any month since January. Three missile strikes were carried out in Yemen in the past week alone.
And after Secretary of State John Kerry told Pakistanis on Thursday that the United States was winding down the drone wars there, officials back in Washington quickly contradicted him.
More than two months after President Barack Obama signaled a sharp shift in America’s targeted-killing operations, there is little public evidence of change in a strategy that has come to define the administration’s approach to combating terrorism. Most elements of the drone program remain in place, including a base in the southern desert of Saudi Arabia that the CIA continues to use to carry out drone strikes in Yemen.
In late May, administration officials said that the bulk of drone operations would shift to the Pentagon from the CIA. But the CIA continues to run America’s secret air war in Pakistan, where Kerry’s comments underscored the administration’s haphazard approach to discussing these issues publicly.
During a television interview in Pakistan on Thursday, Kerry said the United States had a “timeline” to end drone strikes in that country’s western mountains, adding, “We hope it’s going to be very, very soon.”
But the Obama administration is expected to carry out drone strikes in Pakistan well into the future.
Hours after Kerry’s interview, the State Department issued a statement saying there was no definite timetable to end the targeted killing program in Pakistan, and a department spokeswoman, Marie Harf, said, “In no way would we ever deprive ourselves of a tool to fight a threat if it arises.”
Micah Zenko, a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, who closely follows U.S. drone operations, said Kerry seemed to have been out of sync with the rest of the Obama administration in talking about the drone program.
“There’s nothing that indicates this administration is going to unilaterally end drone strikes in Pakistan,” Zenko said, “or Yemen for that matter.”
The mixed messages of the past week reveal an ambivalence inside the administration about just how much light ought to shine on America’s shadow wars.
Even though Obama pledged a greater transparency and public accountability for drone operations, he and other officials still refuse to discuss specific strikes in public, relying instead on vague statements about “ongoing counterterrorism operations.”