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

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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.

Finally, during the eight-plus years U.S. forces were in Iraq, they detained over 90,000 suspected insurgents and terrorists, and handed over 200 of the most dangerous detainees to the Iraqi government in December. Earlier this month, it was reported that the last remaining detainee, Ali Musa Daqduq (a Hezbollah operative who confessed to orchestrating attacks on U.S. troops), would soon be released. The Obama administration had hoped to extradite Daqduq to the United States to face a military tribunal, but, as Jack Healy and Charlie Savage wrote, "Ultimately, Iraqi leaders asserted their sovereignty in the high-profile case and took control of Mr. Daqduq."

In Afghanistan, as I hypothesized two months ago, "Night raids enrage Afghans, and Karzai faces political pressure to significantly reduce their occurrence and frequency." Afghanistan's top officer, General Sher Mohammed Karimi, recently stated, "In the last two months, 14 to 16 [night] operations have been rejected by the Afghans." A U.S. official added: "The Afghans are the ones who give final say on whether or not the mission gets conducted. That's how the process works now."

In addition, in September 2012 the United States will complete the transition of control over Parwan Detention Facility to the Afghan government, which currently holds between 1,700 and 3,200 detainees (perhaps 50 non-Afghans) captured by U.S. and ISAF troops. Despite spending upwards of $60 million building Parwan, a recent Pentagon inspector general report found a slight problem: the locks are "incapable of locking either manually or electronically" and the complex itself is "not up to the standard suitable for a detention facility."

As a result, within the next four months, suspected militants who attacked U.S. soldiers or threatened the government in Kabul could be freed. U.S. officials claim that they will retain veto power over which detainees can be released, but the U.S.-Afghan Memorandum of Understanding on "Transfer of U.S. Detention Facilities in Afghan Territory to Afghanistan" explicitly states that "Afghanistan affirms that it is to consult with the United States before the release" and merely "consider favorably such [U.S.] assessment" of any detainee.

One of the enduring lessons of military occupations is that most people are angry you intervened in their country, some that you stay too long, and the rest that you leave too soon. Yesterday, while reflecting on the U.S. experience in Afghanistan, President Obama noted, "Ten years in a country that's very different, that's a strain not only on our folks but also on that country, which at a point is going to be very sensitive about its own sovereignty."

Obama also stated that the United States will "stay focused on the counterterrorism issue, to work with the government." As the NATO summit maps the handover of security to Afghan forces, U.S. policymakers should recognize that state sovereignty extends to both counterinsurgency and counterterrorism missions. Just because intelligence operations or military policies in foreign countries are characterized by American officials as a "light footprint," or "limited," "discriminate," and "surgical," does not make it so. The Strategic Partnership Agreement framework for U.S. operations in Afghanistan declares, "The United States emphasizes its full respect for the sovereignty and independence of Afghanistan," and "pledges not to use Afghan territory or facilities as a launching point for attacks against other countries." Don't be surprised when Karzai and his successor actually enforce this commitment. Ultimately, democratically elected leaders have a responsibility to their citizens to defend their borders and sovereign rights.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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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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