ISLAMABAD – Pakistani officials on Monday condemned the U.S. for carrying out its first drone strike in the country since parliament demanded they end two weeks ago, but qualified that it should be seen in light of the presence of Islamist militants on Pakistani soil.
The mixed signals indicate the delicate tightrope the government is trying to walk with the American attacks. They are very unpopular in Pakistan, so opposing them makes sense for political reasons. But the government does not seem to want the strikes to torpedo attempts to patch up ties with the U.S., which could free up over $1 billion in American military aid.
Pakistan's Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying the strikes which killed three suspected militants in the North Waziristan tribal area Sunday "are in total contravention of international law and established norms of interstate relations."
"The government of Pakistan has consistently maintained that drone attacks are violative of its territorial integrity and sovereignty," it said.
Pakistan's parliament demanded an end to the strikes in mid-April when it approved new guidelines for the country's relationship with the U.S.
Washington had hoped that parliament's decision would pave the way for Pakistan to reopen supply lines for NATO troops in Afghanistan that were closed in November in retaliation for American airstrikes that accidentally killed 24 Pakistani troops.
The drone attacks have been a stumbling block. But Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani struck a moderate tone Monday when he seemed to link the strikes to the continued ability of Islamist militants fighting the government and international forces in Afghanistan to operate on Pakistan's territory.
He pointed out that the resolution passed by parliament also stipulated that foreign fighters must be expelled from the country and Pakistani soil should not be used to attack other countries.
"So, when we plan a strategy (with the U.S.), all these aspects would be discussed," said Gilani.
The U.S. has repeatedly demanded that Pakistan target Taliban and Al Qaeda militants who use its territory to launch cross-border attacks.
The Pakistani military has refused, claiming its forces are stretched too thin by operations against homegrown militants battling the government. However, many analysts believe Pakistan is reluctant to target militants with whom it has historical ties because they could be useful allies in Afghanistan after foreign forces withdraw.
The drone issue is complicated by the fact that some elements of the Pakistani government, including the military, have helped the U.S. carry out strikes in the past. That cooperation has come under strain as the relationship between the two countries has deteriorated, but many analysts believe some in the government still support the program at some level.
Even those Pakistani officials believed to support the attacks often protest them in public because they are so unpopular in the country. Many Pakistanis believe they most kill civilians, an allegation disputed by the U.S. and independent research.
A Pakistani intelligence official said the most recent strike seemed to be a message from the U.S.
"It's a message that things are going to continue as usual irrespective of what we say," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
It's not the first time the U.S. has ignored Pakistan's parliament, which has called for the drone strikes to end since 2008.
President Barack Obama significantly ramped up strikes in Pakistan when he took office in 2009, and while the U.S. has said little publicly about the attacks, American officials have argued in private that they are critical to targeting Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters who threaten the West.
Drones are not the only issue complicating Pakistan's decision to reopen the NATO supply lines.
The country's parliament has also demanded that the U.S. provide an "unconditional apology" for the deaths of the Pakistani troops in November. The U.S. has expressed regret, but has declined to apologize — a decision that appears to be driven by domestic political considerations. The U.S. has said its troops fired in self-defense — a claim disputed by Pakistan — and the White House could be concerned about Republican criticism if it apologizes.