WASHINGTON: The United States has agreed to halt drone strikes in Pakistan except for stopping an attack on its forces in Afghanistan or targeting a major Al Qaeda figure, diplomatic sources told Dawn on Wednesday.
The sources said that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had personally requested President Barack Obama during their meeting at the White House in October to stop drone attacks in Fata. Pakistan conveyed its concerns over the drone strikes also when US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Islamabad in August and the two sides discussed it again during the US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue in Washington eight days ago.
“Ultimately, Pakistan received the assurance that the drone strikes will be reduced,” said a senior official, who monitored the talks. “The Americans accepted the Pakistani position but also said that there will be two exceptions: Drones will attack positions inside Fata to stop an imminent attack or to target a senior Al Qaeda figure.”
The sources said that at the White House meeting, the prime minister told President Obama that drone attacks “retard our efforts to bring stability to the tribal areas”, the official said. “The strikes also have a negative impact on peace talks with the Taliban.”
According to the sources, President Obama agreed to look into the PM’s request and to hold further talks with Pakistan on the issue.
While urging the US leader to share the drone technology and data with Pakistan, the prime minister reminded Mr Obama that the two countries had acted jointly against Al Qaeda during the initial stages of the war against terrorists. He asked Mr Obama to resume those joint actions.
The American president “agreed to further increase” the existing cooperation between the United States and Pakistan, said another official source.
On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that the US had already cut back sharply on drone strikes in Pakistan after Islamabad asked for restraint while it sought peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban.
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.
Another senior Obama administration official, however, told the Post that no formal agreement had been reached. “The issue of whether to negotiate with the Pakistani Taliban is entirely an internal matter for Pakistan,” the official said.
The Post pointed out that some Pakistanis welcomed the strikes, saying they killed fewer civilians and were more effective against Taliban militants than traditional military operations. Others argue the US drone strikes still cause civilian casualties, terrify residents and violate Pakistani sovereignty. The Post said the current US pause came after a November strike that killed Pakistani Taliban leader Hakeemullah Mehsud.
That attack took place a day after the premier’s National Security and Foreign Affairs Adviser Sartaj Aziz was quoted as saying the United States had promised not to conduct drone strikes while the government tried to engage the Taliban in peace talks.
An annual study by a British-based organisation found that CIA drone strikes against militants in Pakistan killed no more than four civilians last year, the lowest number of reported civilian deaths since 2004.