Washington – Even as it publicly demands an end to U.S. drone attacks on militants in its tribal area, Pakistan is allowing the CIA to launch the missile-firing robot aircraft from an airbase in its province of Baluchistan, U.S. officials said Friday.
Up to 25 people reportedly died Friday in the latest drone strike, which took place in North Waziristan, a remote tribal agency from which extremists launch cross-border attacks on U.S.-led forces in neighboring Afghanistan.
Pakistan's contradictory positions on the strikes illustrate how the Pakistani army is trying to use public outrage in Pakistan over what are denounced as violations of national sovereignty to squeeze the U.S. into giving it a greater say in the selection of targets.
The Obama administration, however, is insisting that the Pakistani military accede to a longstanding U.S. demand to move against militant groups that control North Waziristan, which is Osama bin Laden's suspected refuge, and that they use as a base for attacking Afghanistan.
That message was reiterated by Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in talks he held with Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the head of the Pakistani army, in Islamabad on Thursday, said a knowledgeable person who asked not to be further identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Mullen told Kayani that there would be no let-up in drone operations until there are “decisive, verifiable Pak military operations against Haqqani and related groups responsible for actions leading to the deaths of American and coalition troops in Afghanistan,” the knowledgeable person said.
The North Waziristan-based Haqqani network is regarded as the most deadly and capable of the insurgent groups fighting U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.
The drone feud has contributed to the worst deterioration in U.S.-Pakistan ties since the Pakistani army ended its patronage of the Afghan Taliban following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and backed the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
Despite the tensions, however, the Pakistani military still is allowing the CIA to fly its remotely piloted Predator drones out of Shamsi Air Base, about 200 miles southwest of the Baluchistan capital of Quetta, U.S. officials said.
Asked about a Pakistani newspaper report that the Pakistani army had halted the CIA's use of Shamsi, a U.S. counter-terrorism official replied, “That would certainly be news to us.”
“The Pakistanis should spend less time complaining to the press (about the drone strikes) and more time trying to root out terrorists within their country,” said the U.S. counterterrorism official, who requested anonymity because the drone operations are classified.
News reports said that Friday's drone strike hit militants led by Gul Bahadur, a Pakistani who has an pact with the Pakistani military under which his fighters refrain from attacking Pakistani troops in return for being allowed to cross into Afghanistan to hit American soldiers.
The U.S. counterterrorism official denied allegations that women and children were among those killed in the strike.
Pakistani officials assert that the drone strikes are counterproductive because they've killed large numbers of noncombatants, fueling recruits for the militants and an Islamic insurgency inside Pakistan that has claimed the lives of thousands Pakistani civilians and troops.
U.S. officials counter that no civilians have died since in drone strikes last August, and that about 30 died during the 12-month period prior to that, adding that any non-combatant deaths are unintentional and regrettable.
The Obama administration considers the Hellfire missile-firing drones its most effective means of hitting al Qaida and other militants. Last year saw a record number of at least 113 strikes, according to a count maintained by the New America Foundation.
Some experts and U.S. officials say that the Pakistani army, which oversees national security policies, is angry that in addition to hitting al Qaida operatives, the Obama administration has intensified drone attacks against the Haqqani network and other Afghan militants closely tied to the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI.
Mullen enraged senior Pakistani officials by using interviews with Pakistani news media on Wednesday to accuse the ISI of maintaining a relationship with the Haqqani network.
In a sign of Pakistani anger, Kayani refused to pose with Mullen for the usual official photograph after their meeting.
Islamabad denies that the ISI maintains ties with the Haqqani network, but it has refused to move against the group's North Waziristan stronghold. It contends that Pakistani troops are overstretched by operations elsewhere, and that the group should be part of any negotiated settlement of the Afghan war.
U.S. officials and many experts believe that the ISI considers the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban its ultimate tools for preventing Pakistan's longtime foe, India, from gaining influence in Afghanistan after American troops leave.
“There is an impasse,” said Imtiaz Gul, a security analyst in Islamabad and the author of “The Most Dangerous Place: Pakistan's Lawless Frontier.” “America is pressing again and again for conclusive action against Haqqani. Pakistan wants to ensure that India doesn't get unnecessary security space in Afghanistan.”
Mullen has been a key architect of a U.S. strategy that has awarded Pakistan billions in aid and military hardware in a bid — which up until now has failed — to convince the Pakistani army to close Afghan insurgent strongholds on its side of the border.
The drone feud is one of a litany of issues that have sent U.S.-Pakistani ties into a tailspin. They also include the January arrest of a CIA contractor after he killed two alleged thieves in an incident that led to the uncovering of CIA operations against another militant group with which the ISI is suspected of maintaining links.
Imran Khan, a cricketer-turned-firebrand-politician, has called on supporters to protest the drone strikes on Saturday by blockading a highway along which supplies for U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan are shipped from the Pakistani port of Karachi.
(McClatchy special correspondent Saeed Shah contributed to this story.)
© 2011 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
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