When the U.S. Doesn't Respect Other Countries' Sovereignty

The past decade has seen American drones and forces push against the borders and sovereign rights of Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

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Pakistani women gather for an anti-drone protest in Peshawar. (AP).

In his memoir Decision Points, President George W. Bush described his frustration after reading intelligence reports about a growing Taliban sanctuary in Pakistan in the summer of 2008. Bush recalls an encounter with a Navy Seal in Afghanistan in 2006, who said: "Mr. President, we need permission to go kick some ass inside Pakistan."

Concerned that the Pakistani government would reject U.S. special operations raids into their country--"No democracy can tolerate violations of its sovereignty," according to Bush--the president writes:

I looked for other ways to reach into the tribal areas. The Predator, an unmanned aerial vehicle, was capable of conducting video surveillance and firing laser-guided bombs. I authorized the intelligence community turn up the pressure on the extremists. Many of the details of our actions remain classified. But soon after I gave the order, the press started reporting more Predator strikes.

This marked the beginning of "signature strikes" against suspected Taliban or al-Qaeda militants in Pakistan. As David Sanger wrote in The Inheritance, "For the first time the CIA no longer had to identify its target by name; now the 'signature' of a typical al Qaeda motorcade, or of a group entering a known al-Qaeda safe house, was enough to authorize a strike."

Also noteworthy is Bush's understanding of what does--and does not--constitute a violation of sovereign rights; specifically, U.S. boots on the ground versus CIA drones targeting anonymous militants within a country. However, this conception of ground, but not air, sovereignty is flawed. The foundational treaty regulating air travel, the 1944 Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation, unequivocally states in Article I: "Every State has complete and exclusive sovereignty over the airspace above its territory."

In a prescient warning of the use of drones outside of traditional battlefields, Article VIII of the Chicago Convention, "Pilotless Aircraft," even declares that "No aircraft capable of being flown without a pilot shall be flown without a pilot over the territory of a contracting State without special authorization by that State and in accordance with the terms of such authorization."

Although Pakistani military leaders tolerated--albeit reluctantly--t he expansion of CIA drone strikes from 2004 to 2011, resentment among Pakistani citizens festered. Ultimately, the Pakistani parliamentary committee's "Guidelines for Revised Terms of Engagement with USA" in April 2012 demanded an "immediate cessation of drone attacks inside the territorial borders of Pakistan." In response, the Obama administration has slowed, but not stopped CIA drone strikes in Pakistan. Just last week, President Asif Ali Zardari raised the issue with Obama at the NATO summit. Zardari's spokesperson noted, "The president said that Pakistan wanted to find a permanent solution to the drone issue as it not only violated our sovereignty but also inflamed public sentiments."

Beyond Pakistan, the delicate issue of sovereignty has constrained U.S. foreign policy objectives in ways that civilian and military planners neither imagined nor anticipated.

In Iraq, for instance, Tim Arango revealed that plans for sending 350 U.S. law enforcement officers to train the Iraqi police was pared back to 190, then 100, and more recently to 50: "It reflects a costly miscalculation on the part of American officials, who did not count on the Iraqi government to assert its sovereignty so aggressively." Although the U.S. government initially planned to have 16,000 employees and contractors in Iraq beyond 2011, according to Arango: "The State Department quickly reversed course this year--partly because of Iraqi objections to the expanded operation--and is now cutting back from the slightly more than 12,000 people presently in Iraq."

Moreover, while the Pentagon originally sought to maintain 15,000 to 16,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, a paltry 500 are currently in the country to oversee weapons sales and train Iraqi military forces. And for all of the policymakers and pundits who envisioned Iraq as a launching pad for counterterrorism raids into Iran, there is only one U.S. special operations adviser in Iraq.

Presented by

Micah Zenko is a Fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World. He writes regularly at Politics, Power, and Preventative Action.

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