U.S. curtails drone strikes in Pakistan as officials there seek peace talks with Taliban

The Obama administration has sharply curtailed drone strikes in Pakistan after a request from the government there for restraint as it pursues peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban, according to U.S. officials.

“That’s what they asked for, and we didn’t tell them no,” one U.S. official said. The administration indicated that it will still carry out strikes against senior al-Qaeda targets, if they become available, and move to thwart any direct, imminent threat to U.S. persons.

Concern about Pakistani political sensitivities provides one explanation for the absence of strikes since December, the longest pause in the CIA’s drone campaign since a six-week lull in 2011, after an errant U.S. air assault killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at a border post, triggering a diplomatic crisis.

The current pause follows a November strike that killed Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud just days before an initial attempt at peace talks was scheduled to begin. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government accused the United States of trying to sabotage the talks, and the Taliban canceled the meeting.

Since then, the Obama administration has worked to improve relations with Sharif, who took office last June in the first democratic transfer of power in Pakistani history. Administration officials have praised his efforts to address serious structural problems in Pakistan and to promote peace in the region.

A senior administration official, in response to queries, denied that any informal agreement had been reached, saying that “the issue of whether to negotiate with the Pakistani Taliban is entirely an internal matter for Pakistan.”

The administration is “continuing to aggressively identify and disrupt terrorist threats in the Afghan war theater and outside areas of active hostilities in line with our established CT [counterterrorism] objectives and legal and policy standards. . . . Reports that we have agreed to a different approach in support of Pakistani peace talks are wrong,” said the senior official, one of several interviewed for this article who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the sensitive matter.

Relations with Pakistan have warmed even as U.S. tensions have worsened with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has accused the administration of plotting against him, both with Pakistan and with the Pakistan-based Afghan Taliban, a separate but allied organization with which he has said he is trying to start his own peace negotiations.

The new round of Pakistan-
Taliban talks, which was due to begin Tuesday, was postponed by the government after two members of a Taliban-named delegation declined to participate.

Disclosure of a pause in the drone campaign in Pakistan came as a senior Republican lawmaker assailed the Obama administration for tightening the guidelines under which lethal drone strikes are permitted.

Rep. Mike Rogers (Mich.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday that policy changes made by President Obama last year to the drone program “are an utter and complete failure, and they leave Americans’ lives at risk.”

Rogers cited the spread of al-Qaeda offshoots in Yemen, Syria and Africa, and said that “individuals who would have been previously removed from the battlefield by U.S. counterterrorism operations for attacking or plotting to attack against U.S. interests remain free because of self-imposed red tape.”

The chairman did not mention the CIA program in Pakistan. His comments came during a House hearing on security threats and referred to new targeting criteria imposed by Obama last May that are supposed to allow strikes only against al-Qaeda operatives who pose a continuing and imminent threat to U.S. persons, and only in cases when there is a “near certainty” of no civilian casualties.

The nation’s intelligence director signaled his disagreement with Rogers later in the hearing. Asked whether he thinks the country is at greater risk because of Obama’s counterterrorism policies, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. said, “No, I do not.”

“I don’t think it has anything to do with the policies of this administration or any other,” Clapper said. “What I think it has more to do with is the transformation, if you will, of the terrorist threat, its diffusion, its globalization and its franchising.”

While strikes in Pakistan appear to have temporarily halted, they have continued in Yemen, including recent attacks that have reportedly killed civilians.

White House officials also disputed Rogers’s characterization, saying Obama’s constraints on the drone program are meant to allow the continuation of strikes against terrorist groups, but under rules that are less likely to incite hostility toward the United States.

“The president has made clear that even as we aggressively pursue terrorist networks — through more targeted efforts and by building the capacity of our foreign partners — America must move off a war footing,” said White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. “We will not be safer if people abroad believe we strike within their countries without regard for the consequence.”

Asked after the hearing what people or countries he was referring to when he talked about “individuals” who “remain free,” Rogers said that “terrorists who are in the crosshairs and would be removed from the battlefield under the old policy are still in the crosshairs, but are still actively planning attacks because of the policy change.”

The counterterrorism policies adopted last year were also supposed to lead to greater transparency — a goal that has been largely unfulfilled. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) urged intelligence officials at Tuesday’s hearing to release aggregate data each year on how many people the United States had killed in counterterrorism operations and how many might be civilians.

Officials showed scant enthusiasm for the proposal. CIA Director John Brennan said it was a “worthwhile recommendation” that the administration could consider, but he declined to comment on it further.

Sharif gained an endorsement for peace talks from an all-party conference shortly after he took office. Since then, he told Parliament last week, militants have continued killing innocent civilians and Pakistani soldiers.

While “the government is doing what it can to stop drone attacks,” which have bolstered extremism and anti-Americanism, “we can no longer allow the massacre of innocent civilians” by terrorists, he said. “The situation is not acceptable anymore.”

Sharif also said that “the whole nation will stand behind” a military offensive against the extremists if peace efforts fail. The administration has pressed Pakistan for years to launch a full-scale military assault against the Haqqani network, a branch of the Afghan Taliban that is headquartered in the same tribal area along the Pakistani-Afghan border as the Pakistani group.

But the lines dividing the groups are often hard to draw. In late 2009, seven CIA officers and contractors were killed in Khost, Afghanistan, in a suicide attack that al-Qaeda claimed as revenge for a CIA drone strike that year that killed Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud. He was replaced by his clansman, Hakimullah Mehsud, who appeared in a subsequently released video along with the bomber.

The strike that killed Hakimullah Mehsud was believed to be CIA retaliation for the Khost attack.

Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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