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Pakistani lawmakers want a halt to U.S. drone strikes

March 20, 2012 |  8:05 am

Pakistan-debate
REPORTING FROM ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- Pakistani lawmakers on Tuesday took aim at one of the most potent U.S. weapons against militants, recommending that a cessation of drone missile strikes in the country’s volatile tribal areas be part of a blueprint to end a four-month freeze in relations between Washington and Islamabad.

So far, however, Pakistani officials have yet to explain what they would do if the U.S. ignored the demand.

In the past, Islamabad has publicly condemned U.S. drone strikes but tacitly allowed them to take place. Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, point man in parliament for the main opposition party, PML-N, questioned the government’s resolve to enforce a ban, given that past resolutions against drone strikes were never heeded.

“What’s the guarantee that, keeping in mind our previous record, there won’t be any backtracking again?” Khan said during the session. “Won’t we have egg on our face once again?”

The recommendation to the full parliament was one of a series of measures taken up by lawmakers at a joint session of parliament as they began a long-awaited debate on new ground rules that Pakistan says should frame its future alliance with Washington. Parliament in turn will make a nonbinding recommendation to the government.

Ties between the U.S. and Pakistan have been on hold since Nov. 26, when errant U.S. airstrikes along the Afghan border killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

The attack, which Pakistan insisted was unprovoked and deliberate, was seen by most Pakistanis as the last straw in a deeply troubled relationship that for years has been marred by mutual mistrust and a divergence of interests.

It was preceded by two other events that incensed Pakistanis and strained relations between Islamabad and Washington: the killing of two Pakistani men by a CIA contractor in the eastern city of Lahore, and the U.S. commando raid that killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the military city of Abbottabad. The latter secret mission angered Pakistani military and civilian leaders because they were not informed of it in advance.

After the Nov. 26 border incident, Pakistan retaliated by prohibiting Afghanistan-bound NATO supply convoys from using its territory as a transit route. Roughly 40% of NATO’s non-lethal supplies had moved by truck from the Pakistani port city of Karachi to crossings on the Afghan border. Islamabad also forced the U.S. to vacate an air base in southern Pakistan that in the past has been suspected as a launch pad for CIA drone attacks.

Drone strikes stopped for six weeks following the Nov. 26 incident, but then resumed in mid-January. Since then, at least 10 suspected U.S. attacks have been carried out in Pakistan’s tribal areas, according to the Long War Journal, a website that maintains statistics on the U.S. drone campaign.

“The U.S. must review its footprints in Pakistan,” said Sen. Raza Rabbani, chairman of the legislative committee, reading the proposed ground rules for a reset in U.S.-Pakistan relations. “This means the cessation of drone attacks inside the territorial borders of Pakistan.”

The recommendations also call on the Pakistani government to seek an unconditional apology from the U.S. for the Nov. 26 attack. So far, American officials have expressed regret over the incident but have stopped short of apologizing. A Pentagon investigation into the attack acknowledged a series of mistakes by U.S. forces, but also faulted Pakistan’s military, saying it initiated the fighting by firing on American troops first. Pakistani military leaders denied that allegation.

Washington is especially eager to see the resumption of its Afghanistan-bound supply lines through Pakistan. That is widely expected to happen once parliament finishes its review, though lawmakers likely will impose transit taxes and fees on NATO convoys. The recommendations also call for half of Afghan-bound NATO supplies to be transported on Pakistani rail lines.

The drone campaign is one of the most contentious elements in the U.S.-Pakistan alliance. Most Pakistanis vehemently oppose such strikes, viewing them as a blatant breach of their country’s sovereignty. And yet, some within Pakistan acknowledge that the attacks have been effective in eroding the capability of various militant groups ensconced in the tribal areas along the Afghan border.

“Despite all kinds of negative propaganda, we have seen that the militants had been targeted,” said Fauzia Wahab, a leading lawmaker with the ruling Pakistan People’s Party. “Looking at the success rate of the elimination of terrorists, I would not go against it.”

While lawmakers will debate and likely approve a new set of ground rules for U.S.-Pakistan relations, the Pakistani military remains the ultimate arbiter over foreign policy matters, including the country’s stance on drone strikes.

“It’s all about how clear a position the military will take,” said Ayaz Amir, a PML-N lawmaker. “There has been ambiguity over [drone strikes], saying something in public for the gallery, but also saying ‘All right, we know this is an effective weapon against terrorism.’”

Despite the cycle of crises that has characterized the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, both sides are aware of the danger of allowing ties to sever. The U.S. sees Pakistan’s role in facilitating talks between Afghan officials and the Afghan Taliban leadership as crucial, largely because top Afghan Taliban leaders are believed to be based in Pakistan. Pakistan, in turn, remains heavily dependent on billions of dollars in economic and military aid from the U.S.

Officials in Washington have been careful to not criticize Islamabad over the amount of time it has taken to move forward with the parliamentary review. Pakistan’s civilian government has been sidetracked by several political issues, including Senate elections in early March as well as an ongoing contempt of court case against Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani.

“We have said that we will give Pakistan the time and the space to have this parliamentary review,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington this week. “We will obviously watch the parliamentary debate with interest, and we look forward to reengaging with the government of Pakistan when it has a sense of the results of that review.”

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Photo: Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar talks with reporters before attending a joint session of parliament in Islamabad on Tuesday. A parliamentary committee called for an end to U.S. drone attacks on Pakistan territory and demanded an unconditional apology from the United States for a November air attack on a border post that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Credit: Farooq Naeem / Agence France-Presse/Getty Images.

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