Pakistan is hoping that the over five-month-old lull in US drone strikes in the tribal areas will lead to a permanent halt of the campaign after reports suggested that the CIA-piloted programme is winding down.
“The US has officially not conveyed us about its decision, but our expectation is that there will be no more such strikes on our soil,” said a senior Pakistani official on Friday. The official, who asked to remain anonymous, confirmed that the CIA had not carried out a single drone strike since December last year.
The longest break in controversial drone strikes is attributed to Pakistan’s strong lobbying against such attacks.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif reportedly requested US President Barack Obama in October last year to stop the drone campaign in an effort to allow his government to have meaningful peace talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
The suspension of drone campaign has certainly helped the government to galvanise public support against the militants, said the official.
“This could be one of the reasons that the US may have realised that drone attacks are counter-productive,” commented a security official.
An AP report quoted unnamed American officials as saying that opportunities for drone attacks will dwindle further as the CIA and the military draw down in neighbouring Afghanistan, reducing their intelligence-gathering footprint.
The report claimed that the CIA’s targeted killing programme in Pakistan, once the mainstay of President Obama’s counterterrorism effort, is winding down. It said there hasn’t been a US drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal areas since Christmas because of stricter rules, diplomatic sensitivities and the changing nature of the al Qaeda threat.
“The programme (in Pakistan) appears to have ended,” said Peter Bergen, who has closely studied drone strikes for the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank.
US officials won’t go that far, but Obama announced this week a plan to pull nearly all American troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2016. The targeted killing programme in Pakistan relies on drones flown from, and intelligence gathered in, US bases in Afghanistan that would then be closed.
In a major foreign policy speech at the US Military Academy on Wednesday, Obama said the US would continue to carry out occasional drone strikes against terrorist targets, but he cited Yemen and Somalia, not Pakistan.
But Pakistan officials cautioned against drawing conclusion from President Obama’s speech that the US would not carry out any strike in the tribal areas. They pointed out that it was premature to say anything at this stage, but admitted the possibility that the frequency of such strikes would be far and few between.
The controversial drone campaign began in 2004 by former US president George W Bush. Since then, the CIA carried out an estimated 354 drone strikes with figures of casualties varies from 2,000 to 3,000.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 31st, 2014.