President Barack Obama has ordered a sharp increase in drone strikes against suspected terrorists in Pakistan in recent months, anticipating Pakistan may soon bar such CIA operations launched from its territory, two U.S. officials said.
In more than a dozen interviews, diplomats from both nations say they are trying to repair rifts that have sent relations to the lowest point in two decades, while military and intelligence officials are less sanguine about building trust. At stake are billions of dollars in U.S. funding for an ally in financial crisis, and American influence with a nuclear-armed power as U.S. forces pull out of neighboring Afghanistan.
U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified intelligence, said they expect Pakistan may order the CIA to vacate the remaining air base from which it flies Predators to target militants sheltered in Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
The U.S. has conducted drone attacks since 2004 with the tacit approval of authorities in Islamabad. Pakistan’s parliament and leaders are now demanding an end to the strikes, calling them a violation of the country’s sovereignty.
The Obama administration is so frustrated by what it regards as Pakistan’s unwillingness to crack down on certain militant groups and resolve other issues -- such as frozen NATO supply lines to Afghanistan -- that it is prepared to accept aid cuts pending in Congress and to cultivate closer relations with India, Pakistan’s longtime rival, U.S. officials said.
Pakistan has its own set of grievances with the U.S., and Panetta’s scolding doesn’t help, said Pakistan’s Ambassador to Washington Sherry Rehman.
“This kind of public messaging from a senior member of the U.S. administration is taken very seriously in Pakistan, and reduces the space for narrowing our bilateral differences at a critical time in the negotiations,” she said in an interview. “It adds an unhelpful twist to the process and leaves little oxygen for those of us seeking to break a stalemate.”
Cooperation has been at a standstill for more than six months since Pakistan shut down NATO military supply routes to Afghanistan after U.S. forces accidentally killed 24 Pakistani border forces during a friendly fire incident in November.
U.S. and Pakistani officials said they are trying to reach an accommodation on the two most serious disagreements: the drone operation and military supply routes. Most spoke on condition of anonymity to be candid about the tensions in an alliance that has fallen to its lowest point since 1990. That year, Congress banned most economic and military aid to Pakistan over its nuclear program, and the U.S. refused to deliver a fleet of F-16 aircraft for which Pakistan had paid nearly $500 million.
Last month, officials on both sides suggested intelligence sharing might be possible to allow drone strikes to be conducted in concert and suggested a deal might be coming on supply lines. This week, no one expressed optimism about a breakthrough on either issue -- or any quick resolution of many other disagreements.
“This relationship is sinking but has yet to reach the bottom,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who led a White House review of U.S. policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan when Obama first took office.
Pakistani national security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, denied that Pakistan is aiding U.S. enemies. Two officials said if the U.S. has evidence that the Haqqanis maintain bases in Pakistan’s tribal areas, it should share that information so Pakistan can eliminate them.
The Pakistani officials said the U.S. hasn’t done so and hasn’t used its drones to destroy militant bases in Pakistan, undermining claims that Pakistan is actively sheltering insurgents.
Pakistani security officials also said it’s insulting that Obama refused to meet with their president at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Chicago last month.
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they made clear in advance that Obama would meet with President Asif Ali Zardari only if a deal was reached to reopen the NATO supply lines to Afghanistan. U.S. officials thought they had Pakistani assurances, and officials said that failure was one more blow to Pakistan’s standing with the administration.
U.S. officials said the supply-route talks are hung up because Pakistan is demanding more money than the U.S. is willing to pay to move cargo. Pakistan is also seeking U.S. funding for road repairs and other infrastructure rebuilding to compensate for wear and tear from NATO convoys, according to U.S. officials.
Rehman said the issue is about “coming up with new frameworks of mutual cooperation,” not money.
Military aid was suspended following the uproar in Pakistan over the violation of its sovereignty by the U.S. raid that killed bin Laden in Abbottabad. Pakistan expelled U.S. military trainers and denied visas for U.S. officials.
The U.S. acknowledges it hasn’t paid Pakistan more than $1 billion in counterinsurgency reimbursements owed since December 2010. Pakistan says that tab has now grown to $3 billion.