World and Nation

Drone politics take the center stage, even as strikes decrease

LONDON — For years, U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal belt have been the subject of what might be termed a wink-and-keep-moving approach between the leaders of both countries.

While in public the missile attacks produced furious denunciations and angry posturing from Pakistani politicians and generals, in private they led to a more muted process: discreet negotiations, secret deals and, in some drone strikes, full Pakistani cooperation.

But now the volume has been turned up, driven by pressure from advocacy groups, news media leaks and public demands in both countries for greater transparency in the drone program — demands that come, paradoxically, at a time when the pace of U.S. drone strikes has reached its lowest ebb in five years.

Even Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani advocate for the education of teenagers, brought up drones when she visited President Barack Obama in the White House this month, warning him that the attacks were “fueling terrorism” in Pakistan.

And during Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Washington this week, the drone issue hovered constantly.

Sharif came to talk about economic growth and Pakistan’s energy crisis, and to show that his country’s fragile democracy was taking root.

In return, the Obama administration offered an olive branch of almost $2.5 billion in mostly military aid.

But as Sharif flew into Washington, the United Nations released a report saying there was strong evidence that the drone program had Pakistani government approval. Amnesty International investigators asserted that civilian casualties were continuing in drone strikes despite U.S. assurances. “Mr. Sharif came to discuss other things, but it seemed as if it was only about drones,” said Adil Najam, a professor of international relations at Boston University.

Pakistan’s military leader, Pervez Musharraf, initially allowed drones to operate from Pakistan in 2004, but was given little choice when the Bush administration ramped up the program four years later.

As diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks in 2009 showed, Pakistani military and political leaders cooperated with some of those strikes.

Yet Pakistani leaders dared not start an open debate in their own country because of deep-seated anti-Americanism that was driven by the war in Afghanistan and events like the commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

U.S. officials have for the most part kept silent — bound by the legal constraints of a classified CIA program, but also taking advantage of remoteness of the drones’ main stalking grounds: North and South Waziristan, where few independent observers can travel.