Pakistan on Saturday said that it would not allow the United States to expand the drone operation on its soil.
“Action against militants in Pakistan’s territory will be carried out by Pakistan and under no circumstances will the drone attacks be allowed to expand,” said Foreign Office spokesperson Abdul Basit. He was responding to reports that the US is seeking to expand drone operations to Quetta.
Basit added that the US is well aware of the repercussions of expanding drone attacks to other regions within Pakistani territory.
The Washington Post reported late Friday that the US is seeking to expand the areas inside Pakistan where Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) drones can operate. Unnamed US and Pakistani officials quoted in the report said the desire to expand drone attacks reflects concern that the US war effort in Afghanistan is being undermined by insurgents’ continued ability to take sanctuary across the border.
The US appeal has focused on the area surrounding Quetta, where the Afghan Taliban leadership is thought to be based. But the request also seeks to expand the boundaries for drone strikes in the tribal areas, which have been targeted in 101 attacks this year, the officials said.
The report said that Pakistan has rejected the request but has agreed to take more modest measures, including an expanded CIA presence in Quetta, where the agency and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate have established teams seeking to locate and capture senior members of the Taliban.
Senior Pakistani officials expressed resentment over what they described as misplaced US pressure to do more, saying the US has not controlled the Afghan side of the border, is preoccupied by arbitrary military deadlines and has little regard for Pakistan’s internal security problems. “You expect us to open the skies for anything that you can fly,” said a high-ranking Pakistani intelligence official, who described the Quetta request as an affront to Pakistani sovereignty. “In which country can you do that?”
US officials confirmed the request for expanded drone flights. They cited concern that Quetta functions not only as a sanctuary for Taliban leaders but also as a base for sending money, recruits and explosives to Taliban forces inside Afghanistan.
“If they understand our side, they know patience is running out,” a senior Nato military official said.
Pakistan places strict boundaries on where CIA drones can fly. The unmanned aircraft may patrol designated flight “boxes” over the country’s tribal belt but not other
provinces, including Balochistan, which encompasses Quetta.
“They want to increase the size of the boxes, they want to relocate the boxes,” a second Pakistani intelligence official said of the latest US requests. “I don’t think we are going to go any further.”
He and others spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the clandestine nature of a programme that neither government will publicly acknowledge. Pakistani officials stressed that Quetta is a densely
populated city where an errant strike is more likely to kill innocent civilians, potentially provoking a backlash. US officials have long suspected there are other reasons for Islamabad’s aversion, including concern that the drones might be used to conduct surveillance of nuclear weapons facilities in Balochistan.
In interviews in Islamabad, senior Pakistani officials voiced a mix of appreciation and apprehension over the US role in the region.
The high-ranking Pakistani intelligence official said the CIA-ISI relationship is stronger than it was at any time since the September 11, 2001, attacks, and that the two spy services carry out joint operations “almost on a daily basis.”
“I wish (our) countries understood each other the way the CIA and ISI understand each other,” the official said.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 21st, 2010.