WASHINGTON: The United States has cut back sharply on drone strikes in Pakistan after Islamabad asked for restraint while it seeks peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban, the Washington Post reported on Tuesday.
The Post quoted a US official as saying, “That’s what they asked for, and we didn’t tell them no.” The newspaper said there had been a lull in such attacks since December, the longest break since 2011. The newspaper said the Obama administration indicated it would continue carrying out strikes on senior al Qaeda officials if they were to become available or to thwart any immediate threat to Americans. Reuters was not immediately able to confirm the report.
The Post quoted a senior Obama administration official as denying an informal agreement had been reached, saying, “The issue of whether to negotiate with the Pakistani Taliban is entirely an internal matter for Pakistan.” While some Pakistanis welcome the strikes, saying they kill fewer civilians and are more effective against Taliban militants than traditional military operations, others argue the strikes still cause civilian casualties, terrify residents and violate Pakistani sovereignty.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has said he wants the drone strikes to end. The Post said the current US pause came after a November strike that killed Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud just days before an initial attempt at peace talks was scheduled to begin. That attack took place a day after foreign policy chief Sartaj Aziz was quoted as saying the United States had promised not to conduct drone strikes while the government tries to engage the Taliban in peace talks.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government accused the United States of trying to sabotage the talks, and the Taliban cancelled the meeting. Since then, the Obama administration has worked to improve relations with Nawaz. Administration officials have praised his efforts to address serious structural problems in Pakistan and to promote peace in the region. A senior administration official, in response to queries, denied that any informal agreement had been reached, saying that “the issue of whether to negotiate with the Pakistani Taliban is entirely an internal matter for Pakistan.”
The administration is “continuing to aggressively identify and disrupt terrorist threats in the Afghan war theatre and outside areas of active hostilities in line with our established CT [counterterrorism] objectives and legal and policy standards. …Reports that we have agreed to a different approach in support of Pakistani peace talks are wrong,” said the senior official, one of several interviewed for this article who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the sensitive matter.
Relations with Pakistan have warmed even as US. tensions have worsened with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has accused the administration of plotting against him, both with Pakistan and with the Pakistan-based Afghan Taliban, a separate but allied organisation with which he has said he is trying to start his own peace negotiations. The new round of Pakistan-Taliban talks, which was due to begin Tuesday, was postponed by the government after two members of a Taliban-named delegation declined to participate.
Disclosure of a pause in the drone campaign in Pakistan came as a senior Republican lawmaker assailed the Obama administration for tightening the guidelines under which lethal drone strikes are permitted. An annual study by a British-based organisation found that the CIA drone strikes against militants in Pakistan killed no more than four civilians last year, the lowest number of reported civilian deaths since the drone programme began in 2004.
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