ISLAMABAD— Leaders in Pakistan are outraged at reported U.S. plans to continue controversial drone strikes against suspected al-Qaida-linked sanctuaries on Pakistani soil. They are calling it "close to a perpetual war," and say it is exactly opposite to what President Barack Obama stated in his inaugural speech on Monday.
U.S. drone strikes on targets in Pakistani regions along the border with Afghanistan remain highly controversial and are deeply unpopular in Pakistan.
The Washington Post reported last week that U.S. officials have nearly completed a counterterrorism manual that would establish stringent rules for lethal "targeted-killing operations" through Obama's second term.
However, the newspaper quoted unnamed officials as saying that before the CIA is asked to comply with the new counterterrorism guidelines, the agency would be allowed to continue sending unmanned drones to fire missiles at suspected al-Qaida, as well Taliban, targets in Pakistan for at least another year.
Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar told the Senate, the lower house of Pakistan's parliament, on Tuesday that her country considers the U.S. drone strikes a violation of its sovereignty and believes they are counterproductive in the anti-terrorism fight.
Pakistani Senate Defense Committee Chairman Mushahid Hussain said that continuing the drone strikes will damage bilateral ties. He said the United States is actively seeking Pakistan's cooperation in promoting peace in Afghanistan, in order to allow American and NATO forces to withdraw from that country by the end of next year. But the senator said it is surprising to Pakistan that Washington intends to continue waging war through drone strikes on Pakistani territory.
"And this also goes against the pledge by President Barack Hussain Obama in his inauguration speech where he talked that [the] U.S. can no longer afford a perpetual war," said Hussain. "But what he is prescribing for Pakistan is something close to perpetual war by drones, which will also be counterproductive, [a] violation of Pakistani sovereignty, and also promote anti-Americanism among the people of Pakistan."
Pakistan publicly condemns the drone campaign and wants the U.S. to end it, saying that it not only violates the country's sovereignty, but that collateral damage caused by the strikes is fueling militancy in the region.
U.S. officials, however, insist the drone strikes are an effective tool in countering terrorism, saying it has disrupted the al-Qaida network.
But Hussain said he believes Washington may be more willing to listen to his country's narrative on drones in view of what he called the "new ground realities."
"The U.S. is going to be more dependent on Pakistan, on the Pakistani government, Pakistani armed forces and the Pakistani security services, to facilitate a smooth [military] withdrawal [from Afghanistan]. So, given this context, I would say that Pakistan has more leverage vis-à-vis Washington to push forward its perspective," said Hussain.
The United States has conducted hundreds of drone strikes in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Area, or FATA, where al-Qaida and fugitive Afghan militants are believed to have set up hideouts for attacks on targets across the border in Afghanistan.
It is difficult to get real details of the damage caused by drones because the Pakistani tribal areas are too dangerous for reporters to travel to. Independent organizations keeping track of the drones estimate that as many as 3,300 people have died in these strikes in Pakistan, including several hundred civilians.