ISLAMABAD – The United States has drastically scaled back the number of drone attacks against militants in Pakistan and limited strikes to high-value targets in response to growing criticism of the program in this country.
Those actions appear to have temporarily appeased Pakistan's powerful generals, who publicly oppose the covert CIA strikes, U.S. officials said. But some officials are still worried about pushback from Pakistan's new civilian leaders, who took power in June with a strong stance on ending the attacks altogether.
The future of the drone program is likely to be a key item on the agenda during U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's visit to Pakistan, which is expected soon.
Only 16 drone strikes have taken place in Pakistan so far this year, compared with a peak of 122 in 2010, 73 in 2011 and 48 in 2012, according to the New America Foundation, a U.S.-based think tank.
The CIA has been instructed to be more cautious with its attacks, limiting them to high-value targets and dropping the practice of so-called "signature strikes" — hitting larger groups of suspected militants based purely on their behavior, such as being armed and meeting with known militants, said a current U.S. intelligence official and a former intelligence official briefed on the drone program.
The CIA embraced the measures, feeling the drone program may be under threat from public scrutiny, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the classified program publicly.
Two other senior American officials said the U.S. scaled back the number of attacks and tightened up its targeting criteria as a concession to the Pakistani army, considered the most powerful institution in the country and the final arbiter on the future of the drone program.
Senior Pakistani army officers made it clear that the program could not continue at the tempo it was being carried out and expressed concern that civilian casualties were breeding more militants, said the U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
The circumstances surrounding a strike on July 3 in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal area illustrated Washington's intention to go after well-identified targets only, said one of the officials. The attack on a house, which killed at least 16 suspected militants, was backed up by "hugely detailed" intelligence laid out in a 32-page PowerPoint presentation.
The intelligence indicated the target was a gathering of militants from the Haqqani network who were plotting a second attack on the Ariana Hotel in the Afghan capital of Kabul, said the official. The Ariana Hotel has long been suspected of being used by the CIA as a listening post.
President Barack Obama signaled the administration's new approach to drones in a landmark speech in May in which he said attacks would be carried out only on "terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people" and when there is "near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured."
Senior U.S. officials insist they continue to have a secret agreement with Pakistan, or at least from the army, to conduct drone strikes.
But even that agreement seems to be based more on Pakistan's fear of what would happen if it stood up to the U.S. on drone strikes, rather than a real desire to see the program continue. Pakistan relies on the U.S. for hundreds of millions of dollars in civilian and military aid, and even more importantly, for support in getting a $5 billion bailout the country desperately needs from the International Monetary Fund.
The two senior U.S. officials said Pakistani army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani recognizes that the White House views drone attacks as vital to its campaign against al-Qaida and the Taliban, but looks forward to a day when they can stop altogether.
The Pakistani army denied the allegation that Kayani consents to the strikes, calling it an attempt to malign the country and its security agencies.
Some Pakistani officials say the drone program has been useful in the past in killing militants but now draws too much attention and controversy, especially after the covert U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011 outraged Pakistanis who saw it as a violation of the country's sovereignty.
These officials believe Pakistan must be given greater participation in the strikes, or they must be replaced by attacks carried out by the Pakistanis themselves — either with drones given to them by the Americans or their own F-16s.
But past attempts to work more closely with Pakistani intelligence, or let the Pakistanis carry out attacks themselves, have resulted in militants being tipped off before strikes occur.
Pakistan's request that drone technology be transferred to the country is a non-starter because of U.S. fear that highly classified information would make its way to China, a close ally of Islamabad.
U.S. officials often point to Pakistan's failure to shoot down the slow-flying drones as evidence that they aren't sincere in wanting the program to stop, although this would likely cause a huge crisis in relations between the two countries. They also point to the failure of Pakistan to push the issue aggressively with the United Nations or other international organizations.
But some U.S. officials are worried that Pakistan's new civilian leaders, especially Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, may spark a crisis over the drone program. Khan said this month that Pakistan has conveyed to the U.S. that the drone strikes could lead to a "direct standoff" and "could have serious implications on the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, as well as the post-withdrawal scenario," according to Pakistan's state news agency.
The U.S. military is trucking much of its equipment out of landlocked Afghanistan through Pakistan. Some Pakistani lawmakers have previously advocated preventing the U.S. from using the route unless they stop drone strikes.
Senior Pakistani civilian and military officials have publicly criticized U.S. drone attacks in the past while consenting to them in private. The officials and some rights activists have also claimed the attacks have killed large numbers of civilians, an allegation disputed by the U.S. The comments have whipped up overwhelming levels of opposition to drones among the Pakistani public.
Huma Yusuf, a columnist for Pakistan's Dawn newspaper, wrote on Monday that the current Pakistani government is well-positioned to address the issue of drone strikes "because it does not carry the baggage of almost a decade of 'drone duplicity.'"
"As a good first step Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has said he will not privately sanction strikes while publicly condemning them," wrote Yusuf. "Going beyond routine condemnations, Sharif must now articulate a clear demand regarding drone strikes to take advantage of coalescing pressure."
Associated Press writers Kimberly Dozier and Deb Riechmann contributed to this report from Washington.
Gannon is special regional correspondent for Pakistan and Afghanistan.