WASHINGTON – The Obama administration has agreed to Pakistan’s request to limit drone-launched missile attacks to those targeting al-Qaida operational leaders while the government in Islamabad pursues peace talks with local Taliban insurgents, U.S. officials say.
The pause began in late December, seven weeks after a CIA drone strike killed Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud just as negotiations were set to begin, drawing an angry rebuke of Washington by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government.
The halt to targeted killings of Pakistani Taliban leaders “doesn’t impact our list for core al-Qaida,” a U.S. official said Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity about a covert CIA program. “They still have a green light on al-Qaida targets.”
Those targets are fewer these days because al-Qaida’s leadership in northwestern Pakistan is increasingly thin on the ground after more than a decade of drone strikes and other counterterrorism operations, including a Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011.
The CIA has not launched a drone strike in Pakistan since Dec. 25, the longest lull since a six-week halt in November 2011 after U.S.-led NATO forces mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on the border with Afghanistan. That strike weakened diplomatic relations already strained by the cross-border bin Laden raid.
The pause apparently does not affect surveillance flights or recent drone strikes in Yemen or Somalia.
The CIA declined to comment Wednesday. A senior Obama administration official said the United States is “continuing to aggressively identify and disrupt terrorist threats in the Afghan war theater and outside of areas of active hostilities. … This remains our policy.”
External factors may limit future drone strikes in Pakistan in any case.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign a bilateral security agreement to let U.S. troops remain in his nation after December. Unless the accord is signed by Karzai or his successor, who will be chosen in elections scheduled for April 5, all U.S. troops will be withdrawn by year’s end, including those who now run the airfields where the armed drones are based.
If those bases close, U.S. drones could be flown from more-distant facilities or ships. Attacks in Pakistan would be more difficult but not impossible, officials say.