US pushed ahead with drone strikes despite Pakistani resistance

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Shortly before the United States ended a two-month pause in missile strikes on militants in Pakistan last month, senior US officials telephoned their Pakistani counterparts and told them Washington would be resuming its covert drone programme despite mounting objections in Islamabad.

Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were among those who spoke with Pakistani officials shortly before the eight-week pause in the drone program ended, sources familiar with the issue said.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke to his Pakistani counterpart General Ashfaq Kayani around the same time, the sources said, but a US defense official said the two men did not discuss drone strikes.

The strike that followed on January 10, when US aircraft fired missiles at a home in the North Waziristan tribal area, was the first such attack since US aircraft, in a mishap that plunged bilateral ties into a tailspin, killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along remote border with Afghanistan.

The November 26 border incident infuriated a vulnerable government in Islamabad and prompted Pakistani officials to signal, in more emphatic terms than they had previously, that they would no longer accept US drone strikes. That set the Obama administration up for yet another potential collision with Pakistan as it continues a controversial drone programme that has become a centerpiece of US efforts to quash militancy there.

The Pakistani border deaths, which NATO deemed an accident and a tragedy, prompted Pakistan to shut down an overland supply route that is key for NATO troops in Afghanistan and to force US personnel off an air base in southwest Pakistan that had been used to launch drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas. In public, the US missile strikes are a frequent target of criticism for Pakistani politicians, who decry them as a violation of the country’s sovereignty. But in private, Pakistani leaders have long supported and even encouraged the strikes provided they steer clear of certain areas and targets.

Yet even as both governments try to put the relationship back together, current and former U.S. officials speaking on condition of anonymity said the Obama administration will not hesitate to continue the aerial strikes when targets and intelligence are sufficiently compelling.

But the US officials also said they are unlikely to give Pakistan advance notice about drone strikes for the time being, given the lack of trust on both sides and what American officials describe as a track record in Pakistan of intelligence leaks allowing militants to get away before planned attacks are launched.