Deadly U.S. Drone Strikes Resume in Pakistan, Adding to Increasingly Strained Relations

U.S. drone strikes have resumed in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan on the Afghan border. Two strikes in 24 hours allayed rumors that the strikes had been suspended amid the tension surrounding the arrest of an American CIA contractor who shot and killed two Pakistani men last month.

The U.S. would not be able to carry out the drone strikes without Pakistani help in identifying targets. But a recent analysis of those Predator strikes in recent years suggests that few of those killed in those attacks are considered high-value targets. Of the nearly 939 militants killed last year, 12 were considered high-value targets and only two were on the U.S. most wanted list.

But a senior U.S. official pushed back, arguing that focusing solely on high-value targets underestimates how important it is to keep pressure on the Al Qaeda and Taliban networks themselves in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

"There hasn't been a single non-combatant casualty since last summer,” this official noted. “And it's ridiculous to think that you can't go after lower-ranking terrorists who, among other things, are targeting American forces in Afghanistan -- not to mention our homeland."

But even as the Pentagon defended its aerial assault on Muslim extremists in the region, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has confirmed that the U.S. is attempting to reach out and to negotiate with elements of the Taliban.

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“Now, I know that reconciling with an adversary that can be as brutal as the Taliban sounds distasteful, even unimaginable,” Clinton said in a speech to the Asia Society. “And diplomacy would be easy if we only had to talk to our friends. But that is not how one makes peace. President Reagan understood that when he sat down with the Soviets.”

The fledgling efforts appear to have been the brainchild of former Ambassador Richard Holbrooke before he died. But according to another senior U.S. official in Washington, “There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of progress on the Taliban reconciliation front at the moment."

As efforts to make peace with the Taliban stall, relations with the Pakistani government have reached new lows. And the U.S. drone attacks are at the heart of the conflict. While the strikes are key to the U.S. strategy for the region, the frequent attacks have sparked popular outrage in the nation of 170 million.

CIA Director Leon Panetta, whose agency runs the drone program, told the Senate Intelligence Committee last week that U.S.-Pakistan alliance is “one of the most complicated relationships that I've seen in a long time.”

“There are issues that we have as to how they operate, ties the Pakistanis have to certain groups that concern us,” Panetta said. “I have to be part director of the CIA and diplomat to get the job done.”

The resumption of drone strikes this week after a month-long hiatus (officials blamed bad weather) comes as the U.S. and Pakistani governments battle over the fate of CIA contractor Raymond Davis.

Davis was travelling on a diplomatic passport and working for the U.S. embassy in Pakistan on Jan. 27 when he shot and killed two motorcyclists he said were trying to rob him in the streets of Lahore. The killings incensed Pakistanis who were already resentful of the drone war being waged. News that Davis was a CIA contractor was met with an uproar in the Pakistani press, which has featured incendiary articles suggesting Davis is a rogue agent.

The Obama administration has been adamant that Davis holds diplomatic immunity and is demanding his immediate release. But for now, Davis, a former Special Forces officer and Blackwater security contractor, sits in a Lahore prison alongside 4,000 mostly Islamic militants. One U.S official said Pakistani authorities are so concerned about Davis’ safety that they have dogs sniffing his food to ensure that it isn’t poisoned and have taken the weapons from his guards for fear that they may kill him.