WASHINGTON: The United States has decided to significantly decrease the number of drone strikes in Pakistan and eventually phase it out, a high ranking official familiar with intelligence operations told The News.
The official, who cannot be named here because of the sensitivity of the issue, believes that the primary purpose of drone attacks was to eliminate the al Qaeda leadership from the region.
“Now that we have taken out most of these guys, the usage of the drone strikes seems decreasing,” the official said adding, “The administrationused the drone strikes aggressively and killed the top al Qaeda leaders.”Ê
This would be a welcome and a new development in the war on terror and could mark an end to one of the biggest points of contention between Pakistan and the United States.The official maintained that the strikes had become more strategic and focused in the last couple of years, yet theÊreaction to these strikes in Pakistan suggested that they were highly counterproductive.
Quite recently, the pace of the strikes has slowed down, and there have only been a couple of strikes since Obama’s re-election in November. These strikes took out high profile “foreigners,” a term often used to describe Arab al Qaeda operatives or members of regional terror groups outside Pakistan. The decrease in strikes comes because of the continuous pressure from the Pakistani leadership as well.
In various high level meetings, the US administration officials were explicitly told that al Qaeda had mostly been degraded, and there was no point aiming these missiles at Taliban foot soldiers. Pakistan has maintained that drones were creating more recruits for the terrorists.
Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, Sherry Rehman told The News about the message Pakistan was vehemently relaying to the US officials. “This is unhelpful to a government that has created a national consensus on fighting terrorism as our own battle, our own cause, because drone attacks invariably change that dynamic. They create ambiguity in the public discourse about taking ownership of this very important battle against terrorism and extremism, mainly because terrorism per se then gets seen as a US target, not an indigenous challenge we really must not be confused about fighting,” she said.
The renewed relationship after the Salala incident and the resultant US apology that followed also helped get this message through. US officials believe that there is better military and intelligence cooperation with Pakistan now.Ê
“Our security relationship with Pakistan is clearly moving in the right direction and we are continuing to engage with Pakistan to ensure this positive momentum continues,” Pentagon spokesperson Bill Speaks said.
He did not comment on the slowed down attacks but responded that despite challenges both countries shared a common interest when it came to going after al Qaeda.Ê
The number of drone strikes increased when President Barack Obama first took office. According to secret diplomatic cables leaked by Wikileaks, Pakistan’s Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani not only tacitly agreed to the drone strikes, but in 2008 asked America to increase them.
Obama’s drone campaign started three days into the first term of his presidency. But as President Obama got elected for his second term, the drone strikes policy has taken a back seat. Some figures collected by independent organisations claim that out of more than 350 drone strikes since 2004, a little over 50 were carried out under the Bush administration.Ê