While President Obama has sent some major signals in his first days in office that his foreign policy will differ from President Bush’s, he sent one yesterday demonstrating continuity on a very key issue:  targeting al Qaeda and Taliban militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas. 


Time Reid for the Times of London:

Missiles fired from suspected US drones killed at least 15 people inside Pakistan today, the first such strikes since Barack Obama became president and a clear sign that the controversial military policy begun by George W Bush has not changed.

Security officials said the strikes, which saw up to five missiles slam into houses in separate villages, killed seven “foreigners” – a term that usually means al-Qaeda – but locals also said that three children lost their lives.

Dozens of similar strikes since August on northwest Pakistan, a hotbed of Taleban and al-Qaeda militancy, have sparked angry government criticism of the US, which is targeting the area with missiles launched from unmanned CIA aircraft controlled from operation rooms inside the US.

The operations were stepped up last year after frustration inside the Bush administration over a perceived failure by Islamabad to stem the flow of Taleban and al-Qaeda fighters from the tribal regions into Afghanistan. Mr Obama has made Afghanistan his top foreign policy priority and said during his presidential campaign that he would consider military action inside Pakistan if the government there was unable or unwilling to take on the militants.

This should surprise no one.   Many will recall that then-candidate for the Democratic nomination Obama  stated back in August 2007 that he would, given actionable intelligence, strike at al Qaeda in Pakistan with or without the consent of the Pakistani government.   He was widely lambasted by his fellow Democrats and his eventual general election rival, John McCain.  (It should be noted that his now-vice president, Joe Biden, was one of his few supporters on this one.)  His foolish, unwise, naive policy was adopted by the Bush administration months later; it would be odd, indeed, if he were to abandon it now.

A front page piece in today’s Washington Post observes that, “The shaky Pakistani government of Asif Ali Zardari has expressed hopes for warm relations with Obama, but members of Obama’s new national security team have already telegraphed their intention to make firmer demands of Islamabad than the Bush administration, and to back up those demands with a threatened curtailment of the plentiful military aid that has been at the heart of U.S.-Pakistani ties for the past three decades.”

Pakistan is, of course, decrying the policy publicly.  Their ambassador to the United States, Hasain Haqqani, says, “Pakistan hopes that Obama will be more patient while dealing with Pakistan,”adding, “We will review all options if Obama does not adopt a positive policy towards us.”   In reality, though, their feasible options are limited indeed.  And it’s quite possible that they’re happy to have U.S. Predators doing their job for them, so long as they can maintain plausible deniability and affect public outrage at the violation of their country’s sovereignty.

My colleague Shuja Nawaz, director of our South Asia Center, tells the Post that the key is a policy that goes beyond kinetics.  “He can’t just focus on military achievements; he has to win over the people,” adding, “Relying on military strikes will not do the trick.”  He praises attaching strings to our foreign aid because “people are more cognizant of the need for accountability — for ‘tough love.’ “

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.