Since President Obama assumed office, the Pentagon has also increased the use of special operations raids (aka kill/capture missions) from 675 covert raids in 2009 to roughly 2,200 in 2011. According to the Pentagon, approximately 90 percent of these night raids end without a shot fired. As conventional U.S. forces begin to drawdown, "the role of counterterrorism operations, and in particular these kinds of special missions, will become prominent," says ISAF commander General John Allen.
The covert raids are directed by an elite element within the U.S. military known as Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). The clandestine command draws top personnel from groups like the Navy SEALs and Army Delta Force, and maintains a direct relationship with the executive branch. JSOC has tripled in size since 9/11 and currently operates in a dozen countries. Jeremy Scahill of The Nation writes, "The primacy of JSOC within the Obama administration's foreign policy--from Yemen and Somalia to Afghanistan and Pakistan--indicates that he has doubled down on the Bush-era policy of targeted assassination as a staple of U.S. foreign policy."
Civilians and local governments have condemned night raids as culturally offensive, given that U.S. soldiers often enter homes in the dead of night, with women present, and utilize dogs (which are viewed as impure in Muslim culture) in their search. In April 2012, the United States reached a seminal agreement with Afghanistan to give Kabul greater oversight over special operations raids and put Afghan forces in the lead of those activities.
What Are the Political Implications of U.S. Targeted Killings?
A prominent criticism of U.S. targeted killings, and of drone strikes in particular, is over the issue of collateral civilian deaths. Some official Pakistani sources claim that seven hundred innocents were killed in 2009 alone, while U.S. government sources claim that fewer than thirty civilians were killed from May 2008 to May 2010. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Peter Bergen says the more salient question is, "What impact has the drone program had on the insurgency in Pakistan and, by extension, that in Afghanistan?" Violence in Pakistan has risen sharply since the drone campaign began, according to the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, however, Bergen cautions, "a number of factors could have contributed to these increases."
In January 2012, President Obama, publicly acknowledging the covert drone attacks in Pakistan for the first time, argued that they had "not caused a huge number of civilian casualties" and that "this thing is kept on a very tight leash."
But some observers argue targeted killings are a bane to U.S.-Pakistan relations. CFR's Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow Pir Zubair Shah writes that anti-Americanism in Pakistan is fueled by the domestic media's portrayal of the U.S. drone campaign as a "scourge targeting innocent civilians." This is a narrative that will persist, he says, "until the United States and Pakistan come clean about the program."
In November 2011, the Wall Street Journal reported the CIA had made several "secret concessions" in its drone program after U.S. diplomats suggested strikes targeting large groups of militants were harming relations with Islamabad. Changes in U.S. drone policy included providing the State Department greater influence in targeting decisions, giving Pakistani leaders forewarning about certain strikes, and suspending drone operations when Pakistani officials visit the United States. In addition, some experts suggest the CIA imposed a moratorium on drone operations in Pakistan from November 2011 to January 2012--the longest pause since the program was ramped up in July 2008--against a backdrop of deteriorating bilateral relations (LWJ). In April 2012, the Pakistani parliament voted unanimously to demand an end to U.S drone strikes on its territory.
Proponents of targeted killings say the civilian death toll is exaggerated for political purposes, while claiming drone strikes and night raids remain the most effective and discreet methods for pursuing militant leaders and their networks, especially as the United States begins to seek a smaller military footprint in the region.