Kerry Says Use of Drones in Pakistan ‘Will End,’ But State Dep’t Insists No Change in Policy

August 1, 2013 - 8:45 PM

John Kerry and Sartaj Aziz in Islamabad

Pakistani foreign affairs advisor Sartaj Aziz, seen here with Secretary of State John Kerry before their talks in Islamabad, stressed that Pakistan was pushing for “stopping, not just containment” of U.S. drone strikes on its soil. (Photo: State Department)

(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Pakistan has secured an agreement to restart a strategic dialogue after an almost three-year hiatus, but neither Pakistanis nor Americans were left any the wiser Thursday about the future of U.S. drone strikes there. The strikes and broader issue of Pakistani sovereignty violation allegations were largely responsible for the talks’ suspension in the first place.

Pakistan’s new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, has demanded an immediate halt to the use of drones to target militants along the border with Afghanistan, and during an interview with Pakistan TV Thursday Kerry signaled that that would hopefully happen “very, very soon.”

“I believe that we’re on a good track. The program will end as we have eliminated most of the threat and continue to eliminate it,” Kerry said. “I think the president has a very real timeline and we hope it’s going to be very, very soon.”

Several hours later, however, Kerry’s spokeswoman in Washington walked back the comments, particularly the notion that the program will “end” – Kerry’s word – rather than be reduced.

“I would make very clear that even as we use one tactic less or more in a different place, or we move around from where we’re focused on certain things, in no way would we ever deprive ourselves of a tool that would help us fight a threat if it arises,” said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf.

Kerry was not announcing a policy shift, she said.

“We’re all realistic about the fact that there is a threat that remains and that we have to keep up our vigilance – excuse me – the fight in this and other places around the world. So this was in no way indicating a change in policy. It’s really been reinforcing things I think we’ve said for months on this.”

“Obviously, in a perfect world, we would all like to get to a place where there is no threat,” Harf said. “Now, nobody’s naive about the fact that one still exists, and that we’re going to keep up the pressure.”

A U.S. drone attack took place as recently as Sunday night, when according to Pakistani officials at least six suspected militants were killed in a strike in North Waziristan, a terror hotbed adjacent the Afghanistan border. (All 16 drone strikes in Pakistan this year have taken place in North Waziristan or neighboring South Waziristan, according to the New America Foundation.)

The foreign ministry made the customary protest over the “violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” but Sharif has vowed to end the practice altogether.

Speaking alongside the secretary of state in Islamabad, Kerry’s Pakistani counterpart, Sartaj Aziz stressed the point, saying Pakistan was pushing for “stopping, not just containment” of the use of drones.

Heritage Foundation senior research fellow Lisa Curtis in a recent analysis argued that it is Pakistani policy that makes the drone strikes necessary.

“The continuation of drone strikes signals U.S. frustration with Pakistan’s unwillingness to crack down consistently and comprehensively on groups that find sanctuary in Pakistan’s tribal areas,” she wrote. “There continue to be close ties between the Pakistan military and the Taliban-allied Haqqani Network, which attacks U.S. forces in Afghanistan and undermines the overall U.S. and NATO strategy there.”

“No doubt a better alternative to the drones would be Pakistani action against terrorist sanctuaries,” said Curtis. “But Pakistan has stonewalled repeated U.S. requests for operations against the Haqqani network.”

John Kerry and PM Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad

Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad on August 1, 2013. (Photo: State Department)

During Thursday’s press conference Aziz was asked about the Waziristan safe haven concerns and said the military was “overstretched” in efforts to regain effective control over the adjoining tribal areas.

He also indicated that Sharif wants to explore peace talks with militants in those areas, and will convene an “all-parties conference” soon to discuss the issue.

“Obviously, dialogue has to go along with military action, so we will explore that option first,” he said.

Several of Sharif’s predecessors have tried to broker peace deals with militants in the tribal areas, agreeing to ceasefires, pardons, and for the radicals to impose shari’a in their areas. But every initiative since 2006 ended in failure, leading to increased violence on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghan border.

‘Several events derailed this process’

Kerry’s headline announcement in Islamabad was on a resumption of the U.S.-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue, a process launched by his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, and then-Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi in 2010.

Three rounds of the talks were held that year in Washington and Islamabad, and at end of the third round in October it was announced that a fourth round was planned for 2011.

But 2011 saw the long-troubled relationship hit a new low over three main issues – a controversy over a CIA contractor who shot dead two Pakistanis in January; Pakistani anger over the U.S. Navy SEALS’ raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in May; and the accidental killing in a U.S. airstrike of 24 Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan-Pakistan border in November.

“Several events derailed this process” after 2010, Aziz said Thursday, without elaborating. It was now time to realize “the objective of transforming U.S.-Pakistan relations from a transactional to a sustainable strategic partnership,” he added.

Kerry said the resumed dialogue would address “all of the key issues between us, from border management to counterterrorism to promoting U.S. private investment and to Pakistan’s own journey to economic revitalization.”