US defends drone use as Pakistan presses to end strikes

Even before Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif meets President Barack Obama at the White House on Wednesday, his visit to Washington as the leader of an increasingly democratic Pakistan already was remarkable for one major reason: not a single member of Pakistan’s military was in his delegation.

The military, which has always treated Pakistan’s geo-strategic policy as its exclusive domain, stayed home, content with having given Sharif its input at a meeting in Islamabad last week.

In a country where the military has dominated the political landscape for most of the nation’s existence, overthrowing civilian governments four times, Sharif’s all-civilian delegation reflects a shift in dynamics that’s likely to redefine Pakistan’s historically troubled relationship with the United States.

Unlike Pakistan’s most recent leaders, Sharif, whose right-of-center Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party won a clear majority in May’s general election, has a public mandate and publicly identified policy goals, two elements that provide a clarity that previously was absent from exchanges with the U.S.

Those goals conflict in part with those of the Obama administration, and often are different from the Pakistani military’s, but there can be no doubt about what they are. Sharif has made no secret of his agenda, which he laid out again Tuesday in a speech at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington.

Sharif said reviving the economy, improving relations with India, helping to stabilize Afghanistan and working closely with the United States were all components of his government’s long-term strategy to combat terrorism and extremism, which he described as Pakistan’s greatest challenge.

He said he was confident that Pakistan could work with the U.S. on those and other issues, expanding a relationship that’s “stood the test of time” despite “occasional hiccups.” He also said he welcomed American private investment in major projects to overhaul Pakistan’s energy and other sectors.

In no uncertain terms, however, Sharif touched on “a major irritant” in U.S.-Pakistani relations: “the matter of drone strikes, which have deeply disturbed and agitated our people.”

He said the U.S. strikes not only violated Pakistan’s territorial integrity but also were detrimental to his country’s own efforts to combat terrorism.

“I would therefore stress the need for an end to drone attacks,” Sharif said.

Whether he’ll be successful in that plea wasn’t clear, however. While not responding directly Tuesday to Sharif’s comments, the White House once again defended drone strikes as it disputed claims by two human rights groups that the administration’s targeted-killing program violates international law and often has killed civilians.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the White House was carefully reviewing the reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which found dozens of civilian victims in Yemen and Pakistan.

"To the extent these reports claim that the U.S. has acted contrary to international law, we would strongly disagree," Carney said. He called U.S. counterterrorism operations "precise . . . lawful and . . . effective" and said the U.S. didn’t take lethal strikes when it or its partners were able to capture individual terrorists.

Twice prime minister in the 1990s during the administration of President Bill Clinton, Sharif is no stranger to the complications of relationships with the United States and Afghanistan. The Taliban were at the height of their power in Afghanistan when Sharif last was in office, and he’s probably the only world leader in power now who personally conducted political business with the elusive Taliban chief, Mullah Mohammed Omar.

So, despite the reservations of the Pakistani military, which sees the Afghan government as complicit with India in supporting a secular nationalist insurgency in Pakistan’s western Baluchistan province, Sharif says he’ll use Pakistan’s influence with the Taliban to promote political negotiations with the U.S. and, in due course, the Afghan government itself.

To that end, Pakistan released a small group of senior Afghan Taliban functionaries from jail last month, although the Taliban have since complained that their former deputy chief, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, remains in custody.

But helping the U.S. settle matters in Afghanistan is only a means to another goal. What Sharif really seeks, analysts said, is American help to develop Pakistan’s economy, which has lost an estimated $60 billion in growth, largely to an insurgency that’s cost 40,000 civilian and military lives.

To accomplish that, Sharif has centered his foreign policy on his country’s need to generate business and jobs, something that can happen only if Pakistan has peace and stability at home and in relations with its neighbors Afghanistan to the west and India, Pakistan’s foe, to the east.

Sharif has told his domestic audiences that the United States, the country’s largest trading partner and source of investment, is crucial to that happening, so there’s no point in antagonizing the Americans. He’s worked to calm the anti-U.S. sentiment that was reflected before the May election in opinion polls, which found that half of Pakistanis supported the Taliban and most of the remainder didn’t view the U.S. as a friend, either.

Those feelings were intensified two years ago when American aircraft attacked a Pakistani outpost along the Afghan border, killing more than 20 soldiers and sparking Pakistan to suspend defense and security cooperation.

On Wednesday, Sharif and Obama will formally announce the resumption of that cooperation. The White House meeting also is likely to yield a document defining areas of common interest.

Details will include the release of $1.6 billion in military aid and compensation for Pakistan’s counterterrorism operations, and probably the reopening of two major logistical corridors through Pakistan into Afghanistan to facilitate the quickest and cheapest possible withdrawal of U.S. military hardware.

The White House also may announce financing for a $12 billion hydroelectric dam in northern Pakistan that’s key to mitigating the country’s chronic power shortage and increasing productivity from agriculture, which employs more than half the workforce.

The prime minister also wants the Obama administration to give him time and space to build public support at home for the decisive phase of counterinsurgency politics. Crucial to that, Sharif thinks, is ending U.S. drone strikes on al Qaida and Taliban targets in Pakistan’s northwest tribal areas, notably North Waziristan, from where they continue to launch attacks into Afghanistan.

After a wave of deadly bombings since the May election, Sharif has succeeded in engaging the insurgents, who operate as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, in a media-based debate on the lack of moral or political justification for their rebellion. Now, he says, he needs the end of drone strikes to win that debate.

Sharif describes his stance as “principled,” saying the strikes are an American violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty that serves to inflame violence in the country.

He argues that ending the strikes would enable his government, with the aid of the Afghan Taliban and their Haqqani network ally, to draw away relative moderates from the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan hard core, which then would be vulnerable to an overwhelming assault by the military.

An identical strategy enabled Islamabad to defeat the Pakistani Taliban in their South Waziristan tribal-area home in 2009, during which it broke the group’s command-and-control structure and isolated factions to their respective territories.

By securing its porous northwest border with Afghanistan parallel to the U.S. military withdrawal from there, Pakistan would have no need to pursue its interests there through militant proxies, Sharif has insinuated.

But he harbors no illusions that the Obama administration will agree at his say-so. Rather, Sharif hopes that the rising controversy surrounding drone use will lead to a White House decision that would enable him to claim a political victory at home and would power a regional peace process that doesn’t leave Pakistan and Afghanistan in chaos after international combat troops go home.

Hannah Allam contributed to this report from Washington.