Used for targeting senior commanders of al-Qaida, drones also play a vital role in combating cross-border infiltration from Taliban havens inside Pakistan.
ISLAMABAD — Making up is never easy. But as Pakistan and the United States try to restart their troubled relationship after a year of spectacular crises, the difference could come down to drones.
For the Obama administration, facing a faltering war effort and increasingly distrustful allies in Afghanistan, the covert CIA drone strike campaign centered on North and South Waziristan in northwestern Pakistan has acquired new relevance.
Although the drones are best known for targeting senior commanders of al-Qaida — another two were reported killed in January — they also play a vital role in combating cross-border infiltration from Taliban havens inside Pakistan. Of the 10 confirmed strikes this year, six hit vehicles filled with fighters that, in several cases, were headed for the Afghan border, a senior U.S. official said.
“We must protect the troops, and almost all of that stuff is in Waziristan,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the drone program is classified.
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Interviews with extremists in those areas leave little doubt that the drones have disrupted their operations, driving fugitive leaders deeper into the mountains. But that matters little in mainstream Pakistan, where public discourse rings with thunderous condemnations of breached sovereignty and civilian casualties. Here, the CIA campaign is as unpopular as ever — and could stymie efforts over the coming days to revive diplomatic relations with Washington that have been frozen for four months now.
On Tuesday, President Asif Ali Zardari will convene a special sitting of Parliament that aims to improve his government’s strained ties with the United States, which have been suspended since U.S. warplanes killed 24 Pakistani troops on the Afghanistan border in November. Public outrage over the shooting capped a tumultuous year for the countries’ relationship, already rocked by a shooting by a CIA contractor in Lahore and the commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
“We want this relationship to be transparent and predictable,” said Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington.
U.S. officials hope the parliamentary debate will pave the way for a normalization of relations by early April, end a months-long blockade of NATO supply lines through Pakistan and boost faltering efforts to draw the Afghan Taliban into peace talks. All those issues are critical to U.S. plans to withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan in 2014. But signs are that the Pakistani debate will be dominated by strident calls for an end to drone strikes.
In North and South Waziristan, the tribal districts where 95 percent of about 265 strikes ordered by the Obama administration have occurred, the drones have sown fear and paranoia among Taliban fighters who, facing a technologically superior enemy, have adopted some unusual countermeasures.
Last month in Shawal, a thickly forested district of plunging valleys that became a haven for al-Qaida after 2001, a senior Taliban commander, Wali ur-Rehman, ordered his fighters to scan a newly arrived car with a camcorder. Rehman explained that the camera could somehow detect otherwise invisible signals from the “patrai” — local slang for small electronic tracking devices that, many tribesmen believe, guide U.S. missiles to their target.
“This is our new weapon,” said Rehman, who has a $5 million U.S. government bounty on his head, pointing to the Sony camera. “It has saved a lot of lives.”
Whether that was true is unclear, although a former CIA official confirmed that the agency does use tracking devices to identify targets. Either way, Rehman’s camcorder served a gruesome secondary purpose: recording the last testimony of tribesmen accused of spying for the United States, dozens of whom have been tortured and executed. Yet that, too, was a sign of vulnerability.
Another rebel commander, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the killing of several innocent tribesmen by the Taliban’s “spy squads” had sparked discord in their ranks over the past year and led to a drop in summary executions.
On the U.S. side, the drone program is also evolving. The pace has relented, with 64 strikes recorded in 2011, down from 117 in 2010, according to the Long War Journal, a website that closely monitors the strikes. A lively debate inside the Obama administration last summer gave the State Department greater say in the strikes. The final say, however, still rests with David Petraeus, the CIA director.
The Afghan war also affects the program’s momentum. Gen. John Allen, the top allied commander in Afghanistan, now receives more timely information about CIA strikes in Pakistan than he did just a few months ago, a U.S. military official said. That allows the general’s commanders to direct attacks more effectively on the Afghan side of the border.
In January, President Obama publicly acknowledged the covert program for the first time. “This thing is kept on a very tight leash,” he said.
Accounts of civilian casualties play a major role in Pakistani anger toward the drones. An extraordinary claim by Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, in June that there had not been “a single collateral death” over the previous year drew an indignant response. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which monitors the toll, counted “credible media accounts” of between 63 and 127 nonmilitant deaths in 2011, and a recent Associated Press investigation found evidence that at least 56 villagers and tribal police had been killed in the 10 largest strikes since August 2010. But analysts, U.S. officials and even many tribesmen agree the drones are increasingly precise. Of 10 strikes this year, the local news media have alleged civilian deaths in one case. The remainder of those killed — 58 people, by conservative estimates — were militants.
“The overriding concern is to avoid collateral damage,” another senior U.S. official said.
For diplomats on both sides, the drone issue has become the Rubik’s Cube of their relationship — a puzzle with no easy solution. “Things are at a very delicate point right now,” one senior U.S. official said.