Cameron Munter revealed that America intends to review using unmanned aerial vehicles in the wake of an angry public and political backlash over high civilian casualties suffered in attacks.
“That is something on our agenda,” Munter told a gathering of top Pakistani military brass, analysts and academics Monday at an event that was billed by the local U.S. Embassy as a major policy announcement.
The U.S. military and the State Department rarely comment on drones.
Munter's comment did not come from his prepared speech, but during a question-and-answer session in response to a question from a member of the audience demanding to know when drone strikes would cease permanently. Fearing a hostile reception that would embarrass the State Department and stoke further local anti-U.S. sentiment, television cameras were ordered to leave the room for the question-and-answer session.
“We have habits and tendencies that don’t work for us and get in the way [of its relationship with Pakistan],” Munter said, a reference to drones and undercover C.I.A. operations on Pakistani soil that have enraged Pakistan’s powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence.
The ambassador gave no timeline on when a review of drone policy would be conducted, but Washington will likely want to make it a priority as it attempts to rebuild frayed relations with Pakistan, its most important ally in the war on terror.
Dealings between the U.S. and Islamabad hit rock bottom after Pakistan lost patience with relentless pressure from America to eradicate militants who use Pakistan’s tribal border regions as sanctuaries and training bases from which to launch attacks on NATO troops.
January’s killing of two Pakistanis by a C.I.A. contractor in Lahore invoked the wrath of all sections of Pakistani society, including the I.S.I., politicians, the religious establishment and an increasingly anti-American public.
Just when things could not appear to get any worse, in March a drone attack in Pakistan’s militant-infested northwest killed a gathering of 31 tribal elders and others, in an apparent confusion over the intended target. The death toll added to an already high civilian body count.
An estimated 600 civilian lives have been claimed by drone attacks in the past 24 months compared to more than 1,000 militants’ killed in four years.
But Pakistan cannot solely blame America for its losses.
While the drones are launched from NATO bases in Afghanistan and, it is suspected, some from Pakistan soil, ground target intelligence is provided almost exclusively by the Pakistan military to the C.I.A.. To cloud the issue further, the Pakistani military and the government regularly condemn the drone attacks in pubic as a violation of sovereignty, but privately acknowledge they would not be able to kill as many militants without the U.A.V.s.
Pakistan has repeatedly requested to be given its own attack drone technology by the U.S., but Washington has been reluctant to hand it over in fear that Islamabad may use it against its neighbor and arch rival India, also a key strategic partner for America in Asia.
The U.S. is now at pains to patch up a relationship that has been worn threadbare by deep institutional distrust and public scapegoating of each other by their leadership.
A fresh example came Monday when Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari reportedly blamed his country’s destabilization as the result of America’s invasion of Afghanistan.
He told the U.K.’s The Guardian newspaper that the war there was seriously undermining efforts to restore its democratic institutions and economic prosperity after a decade of military dictatorship. The interview demonstrates the uphill struggle the U.S. faces in once more winning over Pakistan, with whom it has had on-and-off relations for 40 years.
Munter described the “renewal” of America’s commitment to Pakistan, and stressed long-term commitment to strengthening Pakistan through investments in education, energy and security programs.
“We are not trying to buy people. We will be here for generations,” he said. But the ambassador indicated that countering militancy and extremism would remain the top priority for the U.S..