Pakistan Rejects U.S. Drone Expansion

By Alex Rodriguez for The LA Times

Pakistan has rejected a request from the U.S. to expand a drone missile campaign against Al Qaeda and Taliban militants, a decision that limits Washington’s use of one of its most effective tools against insurgents hiding in the nation.

Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Basit said Islamabad would not allow the U.S. to carry out drone strikes outside the tribal belt along the Afghan border and repeated the government’s request that Washington abandon its use of drones in Pakistan on the grounds that the program violates the country’s sovereignty.

Basit did not say which additional areas the U.S. wanted to target. However, the Washington Post reported Saturday that the request focused on areas outside the southern city of Quetta, where Afghan Taliban leaders have hideouts.

“We are allies of the United States in the war against terror,” Basit said. “However, Pakistan will not compromise on sovereignty.”

Islamabad’s refusal comes as little surprise, given the animosity that the drone campaign has stirred among Pakistanis for years, but even as the government publicly condemns the drone program, it tacitly allows the missile strikes to take place. Pakistan even provides intelligence to facilitate the targeting of the strikes.

The drone missions are deeply unpopular in Pakistan, where they are viewed as an illustration of President Asif Ali Zardari’s willingness to acquiesce to most demands that Washington makes. Allowing an expansion of the drone program could further aggravate the vulnerability of Zardari’s government, already weakened by its mishandling of this summer’s catastrophic floods and the country’s ongoing economic troubles.

Any expansion of the drone campaign into Baluchistan, the province where Quetta is located, would also represent a dramatic departure in policy for Islamabad because it is not part of the semi-autonomous tribal region where the drones are permitted now.

In addition, the Quetta region is a heavily populated area; the city itself has a population of 900,000. The core leadership of the Afghan Taliban insurgency, known as the Quetta Shura and headed by Mullah Muhammad Omar, has used Quetta and its outlying regions as a sanctuary for years.

In recent months, the U.S. has dramatically stepped up its use of drone strikes in the tribal areas. So far this year, the U.S. has carried out 101 drone missile strikes in northwest Pakistan, compared to 53 in 2009.

The attacks have focused largely on North Waziristan, a primary stronghold of militants and commanders belonging to the Haqqani network, an Afghan Taliban wing regarded by the U.S. as one of the biggest threats facing coalition forces in Afghanistan.

According to the Long War Journal website, which keeps track of drone missile strike statistics, 92 of the attacks this year occurred in North Waziristan.

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