LONDON — For years, U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal belt have been the subject of what might be termed a wink-and-keep-moving approach between the leaders of both countries.
While in public the missile attacks produced furious denunciations and angry posturing from Pakistani politicians and generals, in private they led to a more muted process: discreet negotiations, secret deals and, in some drone strikes, full Pakistani cooperation.
But now the volume has been turned up, driven by pressure from advocacy groups, news-media leaks and public demands in both countries for greater transparency in the drone program — demands that come, paradoxically, at a time when the pace of U.S. drone strikes has reached its lowest ebb in five years.
Even Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani advocate for the education of teenagers, brought up drones when she visited President Obama in the White House this month, warning him that the attacks were “fueling terrorism” in Pakistan.
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And during Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Washington this week, the drone issue hovered constantly.
Sharif came to talk about economic growth and Pakistan’s energy crisis, and to show that his country’s fragile democracy was taking root.
In return, the Obama administration offered an olive branch of almost $2.5 billion in mostly military aid.
But as Sharif flew into Washington, the United Nations released a report saying there was strong evidence that the drone program had Pakistani government approval. Amnesty International investigators asserted that civilian casualties were continuing in drone strikes despite U.S. assurances. And a report in The Washington Post on Wednesday, based on leaked CIA and Pakistani documents and published hours after Sharif met with Obama, offered striking new details of Pakistani cooperation on drone strikes.
“Mr. Sharif came to discuss other things, but it seemed as if it was only about drones,” said Adil Najam, a professor of international relations at Boston University.
In some ways, leaders of both countries are being haunted by an ambiguity that they deliberately cultivated for years.
Pakistan’s military leader, Pervez Musharraf, initially allowed drones to operate from Pakistan in 2004, but was given little choice when the Bush administration ramped up the program four years later.
And in some cases, U.S. drone killings suited Pakistani objectives, like the strike that killed the Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud.
As diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks in 2009 showed, Pakistani military and political leaders cooperated with some of those strikes.
Yet Pakistani leaders dared not start an open debate in their own country because of deep-seated anti-Americanism that was driven by the war in Afghanistan and events like the commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
U.S. officials have, for the most part, kept silent — bound by the legal constraints of a classified CIA program, but also taking advantage of remoteness of the drones’ main stalking grounds: North and South Waziristan, where few independent observers can travel.
Behind the scenes, Americans have been briefing selected Pakistani leaders.
This year, a senior U.S. official told The New York Times that a small number of Pakistani officials had been “read into” the drone program.
The strikes resulted in a diplomatic charade of sorts. U.S. diplomats sometimes spoke with weariness about being summoned to dressing downs at the Pakistani Foreign Ministry, close to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad.
But the drumbeat of revelations about Pakistani knowledge of drone strikes has made that position harder to maintain.
And in the United States, this year has seen a vocal debate about the legal transparency and ethical standards of the drone program. That is a change, because for a long time the drone program’s technological abilities outpaced both the law and diplomacy.
Cameron Munter, a former ambassador to Pakistan, left his job in 2011 after a series of bruising disagreements with the CIA station chief over drone strikes. And lawyers argued over whether the strikes, which pushed on new boundaries of international law, were legal.
Since the beginning of this year, however, a pitched debate has been quietly under way inside the Obama administration, leading to Obama’s landmark speech on drones in May, in which he promised new limits to the program. Notably, the strike rate has dropped drastically in Pakistan, including during the elections in May.
For all that, few believe that the drones will derail talks between the two countries on other major issues: the situation in Afghanistan after U.S. troops leave next year, relations with India, and managing Pakistan’s nuclear security — not to mention rescuing the floundering economy and resolving the energy crisis.
And there is little doubt that, all things being equal, Sharif would like to end the drone strikes. The questions is how.
On Thursday, the Foreign Ministry rejected suggestions that Sharif’s government had been complicit in recent drone strikes.
But whatever the truth, those protestations are likely to be met with raised eyebrows from an increasingly skeptical Pakistani public. “Pointing to the U.S. and saying there’s nothing we can do about drones is less and less of an option,” said Najam, the professor. “As more questions are asked, these uncomfortable answers will have to come forth.”