Pakistan has told the White House it no longer will permit U.S. drones to use its airspace to attack militants and collect intelligence on al-Qaeda and other groups, according to officials involved in the talks.
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because the drone program is classified, called the use of unmanned aerial vehicles such as San Diego-based General Atomics’ MQ-1 Predator and its MQ-9 Reaper a critical element in the Obama administration’s anti-terrorism strategy.
Eliminating drone missions would “contribute to a resurgence of extremist groups operating in the tribal areas” along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, Peter Singer, author of “Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century,” said in an interview.
Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, Sherry Rehman, met Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser Antony Blinken on March 9 and told him that Pakistan’s political parties have agreed that the drone flights over Pakistan must end, officials involved said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks were private.
Pakistan’s sovereignty over its airspace and the civilian casualties that have resulted from drone strikes are emotional issues in Pakistan, where public opinion heavily favors terminating drone missions, Pakistani officials say.
The U.S. will try to reach an accommodation with Pakistani leaders, two American officials said. The U.S. gave Pakistan $4.4 billion in economic assistance, counterinsurgency funding and military reimbursements in 2010, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The only chance for a compromise, Pakistani officials said, may be if the U.S. agrees to share intelligence and coordinate strikes first, a strategy Pakistan has long advocated. The U.S. has resisted giving information to Pakistan in advance because of fears that some in Pakistan’s security forces might warn the targets of impending strikes.
The drone program, which President Barack Obama acknowledged publicly for the first time in January, has been part of U.S. counter-terrorism strategy in Pakistan since 2004, officials and counter-terrorism experts say. The administration authorized 53 drone attacks in 2009 and 117 in 2010, compared with 35 in 2008 under former President George W. Bush, according to Bill Roggio, a U.S. military analyst whose website, the Long War Journal, maintains a database of the campaign.
The drone program is “critical,” because it provides better real-time surveillance and reconnaissance than satellite imagery does, Seth Jones, a senior political scientist in Washington for the Santa Monica, California-based RAND Corporation research institute, said in an interview.
“If it is used selectively,” it can help both the U.S. and Pakistan by taking out “key leadership” of al-Qaeda and other groups such as Tehrik-i-Taliban of Pakistan, which poses a greater threat to Pakistan than it does to the U.S., said Jones, a former representative of the U.S. Special Operations Command at the Pentagon.
Singer said that “for several years, Pakistan has openly said, ‘How dare you violate our sovereignty,’ but it turned out the CIA was flying from Pakistani bases with Pakistan’s permission.”
This time, it’s possible “they really mean it,” after a series of high-profile disputes have damaged relations, said Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at The Brookings Institution in Washington.
Frayed by Controversies
U.S. officials are being dispatched to meet with Rehman today to discuss the dispute over drone missions and other sticking points in an alliance frayed by numerous controversies. Those have included the U.S. raid to kill Osama bin Laden without first informing the Pakistani government and the killing of two Pakistanis by a CIA contractor.
The security relationship has been virtually frozen since Nov. 26, when U.S. helicopters from Afghanistan fired on border posts, killing 24 Pakistani soldiers. In protest, Pakistan closed its border to the resupply of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and suspended much military and intelligence cooperation.
While drone attacks have continued this year, their frequency has waned. As of March 10, the U.S. had conducted eight attacks, an average of one every nine days, compared with one strike ever six days in 2011, according to Roggio.
The border attack spurred Pakistan’s political parties to form a parliamentary committee to review the U.S. relationship. A decision on whether to permit drone missions is one of the most anticipated elements of the review, which has not been made public.
Pakistani officials said the committee will present its recommendations to a closed session of parliament as early as March 19, and lawmakers will have an opportunity to debate and amend the recommendations. Pakistan’s leaders are expected to share the review with the U.S. by the end of this month, officials on both sides said.
If the U.S. were to continue flying drone missions without Pakistani permission, some Pakistani military officials suggested last year that Pakistan would be within its rights to shoot them down.
“A Predator flies little faster than 100 miles per hour; a World War I pilot could shoot them down,” said Singer. For that reason, and to keep the operation secret, the U.S. used jet-powered semi-stealth technology in the bin Laden raid, flying a Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel, the same type of aircraft that Iran said it had brought down over its airspace last December, Singer said.
The best solution may be a compromise that involves the Pakistanis more closely in drone operations, Singer said. “That’s certainly something the Pakistanis have asked for, but it may not be politically feasible in the U.S.”
“The better Pakistan can argue publicly that it’s involved in these strikes,” the better the chances of keeping the program alive, Singer said. Given how much trust on both sides has deteriorated, he said, any such cooperation would likely have to start slowly, choosing a few targets to test the strategy.
Singer said he predicts the U.S. will either reach a secret accommodation with the Pakistanis for continued drone missions, or “try a number of workarounds,” that might include flying stealth aircraft instead. Piloted stealth planes can’t linger over a target as long as drones can, he said.
Either solution has drawbacks, he said, from a “fear that the more information we share with them, the less effective our strikes are going to be,” to a concern that using stealth rather than drone technology means “you’re not going to be able to carry out as many of these operations.”
What happens in Pakistan may have ripple effects for U.S. drone programs around the world, in places including Somalia, Yemen and the Philippines, he said.
Testifying before Congress last week, Marine Corps General James Mattis, the head of U.S. Central Command, expressed confidence that the U.S. and Pakistan will overcome tensions.
“We do have a problematic at times relationship with Pakistan. That does not prevent us from working it. And there’s a lot of common ground that we use -- that we operate off of together against this enemy. We don’t have 100 percent common ground about it, but it is not a show stopper,” Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee on March 7.