WASHINGTON: US is shifting its terror-killer drones from Pakistan to Afghanistan after Islamabad asked it to shut down UAV bases on its territory, but America has vowed to continue hitting militants based in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Pakistan has asked CIA to remove its personnel from the Shamsi airbase, about 350 kms southwest of Baluchistan’s capital Quetta, where some of the drones are based, ‘New York Times’ reported quoting senior American officials.
“The withdrawal has not occurred but is expected soon,” the official said adding that the drone attacks would then be flown out of Afghanistan where some of them are already based.
But even after shifting, the Predators and Reapers, top US military commander, Admiral Mike Mullen, in a private meeting in Islamabad last week told Pakistan’s powerful army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani that CIA would not reduce the drone strikes until Pakistan launched a military operation against the Haqqani network in North Waziristan.
As tensions mount between the two nations, ‘The Times’ said the appointment of General David H Petraeus as America’s top spy chief could further inflame relations as Pakistan military does not regard him as a “friend”.
The usually secretive Kayani, has made little secret of his distaste for Petraeus, calling him a political general.
Petraeus has privately expressed outrage at what American officials say is the Pakistani main spy agency’s most blatant support yet for fighters based in Pakistan who are carrying out attacks against American troops in Afghanistan.
Repairing the frayed ties between the CIA and Pakistan’s military-run agency, ISI, will be difficult, American officials say.
“In its current form, the relationship is almost unworkable,” said Dennis C Blair, a former American director of national intelligence. “There has to be a major restructuring. The ISI jams the CIA all it wants and pays no penalties.”
“The relationship between the two countries is very tense right now,” said Representative William M Thornberry of Texas, a senior Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, who visited Pakistan last week.
“And the Pakistan government fuels the anti-American public opinion to increase pressure on us.”
Newly disclosed documents obtained by WikiLeaks have also stoked tensions. One of them, from the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, lists the ISI along with numerous militant groups as allies of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, an indication of how deep American suspicions run when it comes to Pakistani intelligence.
The drone campaign, which the CIA has run against militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas since 2004, will now become the preserve of General Petraeus, and it has moved to center stage, at least for the Pakistanis.
A former Pakistani general who speaks to Kayani said he believed that the Pakistan army’s leader had concluded that the drone campaign should end because it hurt the army’s reputation among the Pakistani public. Those being killed by the drones are of mid-level or even lesser importance, the general said.
The Americans say the drones are more important than ever as a tool to stanch the flow of Taliban foot soldiers coming across the border to fight American and NATO forces.
That the Pakistan army still maintains links with militants was on full display last week in Wana, the main town of South Waziristan, according to a local resident.
There, militants loyal to Maulvi Nazir, a Taliban leader who maintains a peace agreement with the Pakistani military and whose forces often cross into Afghanistan, showed high morale and were moving around freely in front of the Pakistani Army, the resident said. “It looked,” he said, “as though the army was giving them a free hand.”