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U.S. Considers Ways To Keep Drones In Pakistan


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Let's follow up on the controversy over the American use of drones in Pakistan. Over the past few years, no issue has done quite as much to inflame public sentiment and stir anti-American feelings in Pakistan as drone strikes.

U.S. officials say those unmanned, aerial vehicles launch missiles against suspected terrorists and have killed a lot of militants. But earlier this month, Pakistan's parliament, recommended the U.S. be prohibited from flying the drones in Pakistani airspace. NPR's Jackie Northam looks at where that decision leaves the drone program.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: For many years, the CIA's drone program in Pakistan could qualify as the worst-held secret. Until very recently, senior U.S. and Pakistani officials would not even acknowledge that American drones were being used to strike militant targets, primarily in the tribal region along the border with Afghanistan.

But the public knew, and anger towards the U.S. and the Pakistani government grew, especially when there were civilian casualties. Pakistan's parliament reacted to that public sentiment and decided the program had to stop. It was part of a larger set of recommendations by parliament to reset relations between the two countries. Retired Lieutenant General David Barno, with the Center for a New American Security, cautions against taking the Pakistani public pronouncements at face value.

LIEUTENANT GENERAL DAVID BARNO: The Pakistani intelligence services, the Pakistani military, even their civilian government has got an obligation to play to the public, to some extent, and be able to maintain the sovereignty of the country from the public perspective, but also has some interest in seeing the programs that attack terrorists continue.

NORTHAM: Barno, a former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, says many of the drone strikes are against militants targeting Pakistan itself, as well as against those who carry out attacks on U.S. forces across the border in Afghanistan. Still, Barno says the parliament's decision shows the time has come to rethink how business is being done.

BARNO: Well, I think the U.S. will be looking at a lot of different operations or different possibilities to try and ensure that these missions can continue, and, you know, there may be some discussions about whether the Pakistanis can have a greater role in assessing the intelligence and making some decisions about targets that get struck.

NORTHAM: One idea being discussed is setting up a joint command post where both U.S. and Pakistani officers could oversee drone activity, in real time, and that way, giving the Pakistanis some ownership of the program. But Shuja Nawaz, with the Atlantic Council, says Pakistan's military is signaling it wants more than that.

SHUJA NAWAZ: They are seeking total ownership with Pakistani control, Pakistani markings, drone strikes originating from Pakistani fields, under Pakistani control.

NORTHAM: But Nawaz says the U.S. is unlikely to agree to that. American officials believe elements within Pakistan's powerful intelligence establishment provide support to the Taliban and other militants, and could tip them off about impending drone strikes.

NAWAZ: It's highly unlikely that the United States - and particularly the CIA - will be willing to hand over its raw information or its technology to Pakistan at this point. In the past, there have been leaks, and then clearly, that has embittered the U.S. and has destroyed the trust.

NORTHAM: Nawaz says there needs to be serious discussion to find a solution because the drone program is valuable to both sides. Peter W. Singer with the Brookings Institution says at the end of the day, the U.S. does need Pakistani approval for the drone strikes - tacit or otherwise.

PETER W. SINGER: If they truly, truly, truly didn't want these strikes to happen and said, okay, no more airspace authorization, you're violating our sovereignty, well, frankly they would find it very easy to shoot down the systems. It's a plane that flies about the speed of what propeller planes did back in WWI.

NORTHAM: Singer says the challenge for Pakistan's government is to find a way to publicly sign off on a contentious program that it has covertly approved for years. In the meantime, the drone strikes continue in Pakistani territory.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam
Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.