- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 23, 2013

President Obama and his Pakistani counterpart emerged from their meeting Wednesday at the White House vowing to work together to combat terrorism, but controversial U.S. drone strikes continue to cloud the relationship between the two nations and threaten future cooperation.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, while affirming an alliance with the U.S. and speaking of shared goals surrounding security and fighting extremism, once again called on Mr. Obama to end drone strikes against terrorist targets within Pakistan’s borders.

Mr. Sharif has made such statements before, as have many other Pakistanis and other opponents of the American drone campaign, which has dramatically increased under Mr. Obama.

But by making his comments while on American soil — and while inside the White House — Mr. Sharif has guaranteed drone strikes and respect for national sovereignty will remain the top issues between the two nations.

“I also brought up the issue of drones in our meeting, emphasizing the need for an end to such strikes,” Mr. Sharif said after his private meeting with Mr. Obama.

Drone strikes have come to the fore even more in recent days after a joint report from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch told tales of widespread civilian casualties and alleged that U.S. officials who planned and carried out the attacks may actually have committed war crimes.

Mr. Sharif’s brief mention was the only direct direct reference to drones during the public comments of both leaders, but analysts say the issues surely were a major part of the private conversation between the two.

“It’s one of the key things they’re talking about because Sharif has made it clear back home that he’s bringing the message [to the U.S.] that Pakistan wants to see these strikes stopped. This is the public side of this encounter, but far more interesting is what they said and agreed to behind closed doors,” said Karl F. Inderfurth, senior adviser and Wadhwani chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Mr. Inderfurth also is a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs.

“The Pakistanis want to hear Nawaz Sharif standing up for their interests. They do feel like they have been periodically pushed around by the United States.”

Repeated drone strikes have been just one thorn in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, which hit rock bottom following the 2011 raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

The mission wasn’t disclosed to Pakistani leaders before it took place, and Pakistan responded by, among other things, jailing a doctor who helped the U.S. track down bin Laden at his compound in Abbottabad. The doctor’s conviction has been overturned.

The U.S. froze much of its aid to Pakistan following the raid and its aftermath, though that aid has begun to be restored amid hope that Mr. Obama and Mr. Sharif can improve the complex, often troubled U.S.-Pakistan relationship.

Mr. Obama made exactly that case Wednesday while acknowledging there are “tensions and occasional misunderstandings” between the countries.

“We agreed we need to continue to find constructive ways to partner together — ways that respect Pakistani sovereignty, that respect the concerns of both countries,” he said, while seated beside Mr. Sharif. “It’s a challenge. It’s not easy. And we committed to working together and making sure that rather than this being a source of tension between our two countries that it can be a source of strength for us working together in a constructive and respectful way.”

Specialists point out that drone strikes will likely decline in number in the coming months and years, since the list of terrorist targets is shrinking.

And while it is undeniable that many Pakistanis are angered by unmanned American vehicles dropping bombs from the sky, analysts say civilian casualties also would be a near-sure thing if military forces began to more aggressively hunt down members of the Taliban and other extremists.

“If tomorrow the Pakistani military decided they’re going to make a really good faith effort to break the back of the Afghan Taliban on Pakistani soil, they would do it in a way that would probably do more destruction and kill more people than we do with drone strikes,” said Robert K. Boggs, a professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies and former State Department specialist in South Asia.

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