WASHINGTON — The CIA still is launching drone strikes against al Qaida and allied extremists from a base in southwestern Pakistan, indicating that key facets of counterterrorism cooperation have survived the serious strains in U.S.-Pakistani relations since Osama bin Laden's killing, U.S. officials said.
More high-profile cooperative programs have been throttled by the Pakistani military, which is furious that it was kept in the dark about the May 2 U.S. raid on bin Laden's hideout near Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. U.S. military trainers have been ordered out of the country and visas for U.S. officials have been held up.
But the covert cooperation that U.S. officials consider the heart of the counterterrorism effort — including strikes by unmanned, missile-firing drones that have reportedly killed at least 35 extremist leaders since 2004 — is continuing.
"As frustrating as this relationship can sometimes be, Pakistan has been absolutely critical to many of our most significant successes against al Qaida," John Brennan, President Barack Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, said Wednesday. "I am confident that Pakistan will remain one of our most important counterterrorism partners."
The same day, Pakistani Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar was quoted as saying that Pakistan had ended CIA drone flights from Shamsi airfield in Baluchistan province. A senior U.S. official disputed that statement, saying, "That's news to the United States," and suggesting that Mukhtar was trying to assuage anti-American sentiment and deflect public anger over the bin Laden operation.
"It's puzzling why Pakistani officials would push incorrect information out the door," said the official, who asked not to be further identified because of the sensitivity of the issue. "We can only assume that it's a function of domestic politics."
He continued: "Pakistani officials sometimes say things in public that don't exactly square with what they say in private to their American counterparts. They've expressed concerns at times about the pacing and the number (of drone attacks), and the U.S. has been sensitive at times. But the fact is that this program remains intact."
Shamsi is about 200 miles southwest of Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province. According to a database maintained by the New America Foundation, a policy institute, the CIA has used it since at least 2004 to launch more than 250 drone strikes against militants in Pakistan's rugged tribal area bordering Afghanistan.
The agency also flies drones from sites in Afghanistan, so a decision by Pakistan to end the agency's use of Shamsi likely wouldn't deal a major blow to one of the most successful — and controversial — U.S. counterterrorism programs.
In an indirect acknowledgment that drone strikes would continue no matter what, Brennan said, "In some places such as the tribal regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, we will deliver precise and overwhelming force against al Qaida."
Shamsi, however, has become an important symbol of the cooperation against terrorism that the Obama administration has been striving to maintain with the Pakistani army and intelligence agencies, especially in the wake of the bin Laden raid.
Pakistani security forces have provided intelligence for U.S. drone operations and have a say in selecting some targets. Some attacks have been aimed at Pakistani militants waging a bloody campaign of bombings and attacks aimed at overthrowing the country's secular government.
If the Pakistanis order the CIA to vacate Shamsi, "it would be a significant step and the wrong signal," the senior U.S. official said.
The drones have proved highly controversial with the Pakistani public, in part due to anti-American media campaigns that many experts say are orchestrated by the powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, to obscure its own role and to gain more input in target selection.
Pakistani officials charge that the strikes violate their sovereignty — even though they're launched from Pakistani territory — and are counterproductive because they've killed scores of civilians and created new recruits for the militants.
U.S. officials counter that they know of no civilian casualties in nearly a year, and that the number prior to that was extremely low.
Peter Bergen, an al Qaida expert who oversees the New America Foundation's drone attack database, said approximately 2 percent of drone strike victims — estimated between 1,557 and 2,464 people — have been noncombatants.
"I feel like we're overusing the tactic without paying enough attention to what it's doing to Pakistan," Bergen said. "American policymakers have to think about...balancing the second-order effect it has on Pakistani public opinion."
Partly because of the drone strikes, anti-U.S. sentiments were already high when bin Laden was killed in a helicopter-borne raid by U.S. Navy SEALs.
The operation sent relations into a tailspin because the U.S. didn't inform or include Pakistan in the operation. The Pakistani military came in for public ridicule and scorn when it insisted it didn't know of bin Laden's presence and for failing to detect the U.S. helicopters flying in and out of the country's airspace.
(Special correspondent Saeed Shah contributed from Islamabad, Pakistan.)
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