Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta on Tuesday rejected calls for the United States to throttle back the aggressive military campaign of drone strikes against al Qaeda and other targeted terrorists in Pakistan’s tribal areas, in response to criticism of the strikes by a retired head of U.S. intelligence.
“We’re protecting our national security,” Mr. Panetta told an audience at the National Defense University. “We’re defending our country.”
Al Qaeda attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, and its leadership remained holed up in the remote and mountainous tribal hinterland on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, he said.
“We are going after those who continue to plan to attack this country. They’re terrorists. And the operations that we’ve conducted there have been very effective at undermining al Qaeda and their ability to plan those kinds of attacks,” Mr. Panetta said.
U.S. officials generally do not publicly acknowledge the campaign of drone strikes, which are covert operations run by the CIA. The military also uses armed drones, such as in Libya, but the strikes in Pakistan are carried out under intelligence authorities.
Retired Adm. Dennis C. Blair, former U.S. director of national intelligence, said in an opinion piece in the New York Times over the weekend that the drone strikes, though they had been effective in the past at decimating al Qaeda’s leadership, had become counterproductive and were undermining support for the United States and its war on terrorism.
“Drone strikes are no longer the most effective strategy for eliminating al Qaeda’s ability to attack us,” Adm. Blair wrote.
“As the drone campaign wears on, hatred of America is increasing in Pakistan,” where “news media accounts of heavy civilian casualties are widely believed,” he added.
In May, U.S. officials said about 180 drone attacks had been carried out since early 2009, killing about 1,200 militants and 30 noncombatants. Since the summer of 2010, the officials claimed a perfect track record of zero civilian deaths, but even many supporters are skeptical of that. Verification of casualties and targeting is difficult because reporters are barred from the lawless tribal regions.
Last week, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a nonprofit based at London’s City University, published a report based on interviews in the tribal areas and an analysis of press reporting. They concluded that more than 385 civilians, including 160 children, were among the 2,292 fatalities in U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan since 2004.
Mr. Panetta said the campaign of drone strikes has “seriously … weakened” the al Qaeda leadership, “But they’re still there, and we still have to keep the pressure on.”
“Those that are suggesting somehow that this is a good time to pull back are wrong,” he said. “This is a good time to keep putting the pressure on, to make sure that we really do undermine their ability to conduct any kind of attacks on this country.”
Addressing fractious and controversial U.S.-Pakistani ties, Mr. Panetta lightly remarked that it is “complicated.” But he quickly turned serious.
“What makes this complicated is that [Pakistani government officials] have relationships with the Haqqanis,” he said, referring to one of the extremist groups based in Pakistan and active in the Afghan insurgency. “There’s a relationship with LeT,” he added, referring to Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Kashmir-based extremist group long supported by Pakistani intelligence.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, appearing with Mr. Panetta, reiterated the U.S. view that Pakistan’s relationship with extremist groups was changing. “There is a debate going on inside Pakistan about the best way to deal with what is an increasing internal threat,” she said.
Mrs. Clinton also stressed that, despite the wave of recent terrorist attacks there, the U.S. combat mission in Iraq would end at the turn of the year. “The combat mission is over and our troops are leaving,” she said.
Mr. Panetta added the Iraqi government was having internal discussions about “what kind of assistance can we continue to provide with regards to training” and intelligence support to the Iraqi military.