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Pakistan rejects U.S. drone expansion

The government blocks the U.S. from pursuing missile strikes targeting Afghan Taliban leaders in new areas. The drone missions are deeply unpopular and an expansion could further weaken the president.

November 21, 2010|By Alex Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan — Pakistan has rejected a request from the United States to expand its 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 out in the country's northwest.

Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Basit said the government would not allow the U.S. to carry out drone strikes outside the tribal belt along the Afghan border and repeated Islamabad's request that Washington abandon its use of drones in Pakistan on the grounds that the program violates the nation'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, in Baluchistan province, 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 among Pakistanis that the drone campaign has stirred 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 of Washington's demands. 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 economic troubles.

Any expansion of the drone campaign into Baluchistan would also be a dramatic departure in policy for Islamabad because it is not part of the semiautonomous tribal region where the strikes are permitted.

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

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

The attacks have focused largely on North Waziristan, a primary stronghold of militants and commanders with 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.

alex.rodriguez@latimes.com

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