Pakistani officials offer behind-the-scenes support and vital intelligence for U.S. drone strikes that target terrorists operating in their territory, even as they denounce such operations in public as a violation of their sovereignty.
The Obama administration in recent months has stepped up a covert program of firing missiles from unmanned aerial vehicles at terrorists operating in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the Afghan border.
The Predator drones are operated from bases inside Pakistan — the Shamsi air base and Jacobabad — and operations are planned after what Pakistani officials describe as "robust intelligence sharing" between Pakistan and the U.S.
Pakistani officials say privately that the U.S. keeps them informed on covert operations targeting terrorists on Pakistani soil and admit that the drones have been deadly, effective weapons in the war against terrorists.
A Pakistani official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the militant-hunting operations, said the drones have been "extremely useful in eliminating the bad guys."
But the silent Pakistani support for such missions reached a breaking point Thursday after a NATO helicopter crossed over into Pakistani territory and allegedly killed three Pakistani soldiers. Islamabad retaliated by cutting off a vital supply line at Torkham for coalition forces in Afghanistan.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said in a statement it had observed what it believed was a group of insurgents trying to fire mortars at a coalition base in the border area of Dand Patan district in Paktiya province. It admitted its aircraft had entered into Pakistani airspace "briefly."
ISAF said the aircraft came under small-arms fire from across the border in Pakistan. "Operating in self-defense, the ISAF aircraft entered into Pakistani airspace killing several armed individuals," it added.
Pakistani military officials said members of their Frontier Corps force had been struck by coalition aircraft.
The blockage of the supply route caused a major backup of NATO vehicles waiting to cross into Afghanistan, and a long-term closure could hurt the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani protested the "violation" of sovereignty in their meetings with CIA Director Leon Panetta in Islamabad.
Mr. Gilani said Pakistan was "profoundly concerned" about the incursion and the increased U.S. drone strikes.
Past Pakistani protests have been the result of an attempt to address criticism of such incidents by the public.
"Drone attacks have their diplomatic and political cost," said Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador in Washington. "Pakistan is opposed to drone attacks and conveyed its concerns to the U.S. government."
"We are partners in the campaign against terrorism, but we consider these attacks as counterproductive and instead of helping our long-term efforts to win hearts and minds, which we believe are vital in achieving our common objective, these attacks fuel public anger against the [Pakistani] government and the United States," Mr. Haqqani added.
Meanwhile, Pakistani officials have continually pressed the Obama administration for operational control of the Predator drones.
The Pakistani official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said Islamabad believes the drone technology should be in the hands of Pakistan's security forces.
This suggestion has been rejected by the U.S., which has instead said it will consider providing Pakistan with the Shadow, an unarmed aerial vehicle. Pakistani officials have been cool to the offer, saying they would much rather have the Predator.
Shuja Nawaz, director of the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center, said the U.S. could consider giving Pakistan "targeting control" over the Predator even if it is reluctant to give it full control over their operations.
"But there has been no give on the U.S. side on that score. So it will continue to add to the noise in the relationship," Mr. Nawaz said.
Pakistan's neighbor India, with which it has fought three wars, is opposed to the transfer of such technology. Indian officials are concerned Pakistan will use the drones to spy on or target defense facilities in India.
The drone program has eliminated many top terrorist leaders in the lawless tribal belt along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, including Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in 2009.
"A lot of terrorists are spending time staring up at the sky instead of having the leisure to do bad things to innocent people in Pakistan and the West," a U.S. official said on the condition of anonymity. "Lawful, precise, and effective strikes against terrorists in remote parts of Pakistan have put a lot of pressure on these murderers."
C. Christine Fair, an assistant professor at Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies, said it is essential to move the discourse on the drones away from "the tired old line of 'our sovereignty is being trampled' to one of 'we are behind the trigger, this is a joint menace and we are participating in the ownership of the program.'"
"Not only does it require the Pakistanis to stop being disingenuous, it requires the U.S. government to stop being unsophisticated when it comes to Pakistan," she said.
Pakistani officials and analysts say civilian casualties in drone strikes are fueling anti-U.S. sentiment in a country in which a recent Pew Research Center survey found U.S. approval lowest among all countries polled.
"The drone strikes create a negative perception of the United States every time there are civilian deaths," said the Pakistani official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
He conceded, however, that civilian deaths in such operations have gone down over the past couple of years.
"But when there are even a small number of civilian casualties, since the technology is being used by the United States it raises more passions among the people of Pakistan," the official added.
Mr. Nawaz said the cumulative effect of the drone strikes is that they strengthen the popular opinion in Pakistan against the U.S. and may put pressure on the Pakistani government to resist U.S. actions at a critical time in the relationship, when both countries are trying to move their strategic dialogue forward.
Ayesha Siddiqa, an Islamabad-based defense analyst, said the benefits of such strikes are limited. "There is no one who is willing to explain American position on drone attacks to the public," she said.
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