ISLAMABAD — In office for less than a week, Pakistan’s new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, vented his anger Monday at two recent U.S. drone strikes, all but accusing his country’s overbearing military of lying to Pakistanis about its cooperation with the CIA to eliminate terrorism suspects in northwest tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.
"The policy of protesting against drone strikes for public consumption, while working behind the scenes to make them happen, is not on," Sharif said, according to an official statement issued after the first meeting of his Cabinet.
Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party won a majority of seats in the National Assembly, Pakistan’s equivalent of the House of Representatives, in a general election May 11. His assumption of office last Wednesday was the first time that a full-term democratic administration had handed power to an elected successor.
Whether Sharif can change the balance of power with the military, which has staged four coups since Pakistan’s independence in 1947 and retains a stranglehold over foreign and defense policy, remains to be seen.
Sharif has made it clear that he intends to break the pattern by not appointing ministers to oversee defense and foreign affairs. Instead, he’s assumed direct charge of those areas himself.
But stopping U.S. drone strikes, which he and other Pakistani politicians have characterized as a violation of their country’s sovereignty, seems hardly certain. Two strikes have hit Pakistan since Sharif’s ascent to the prime minister’s post was assured – one on May 30, which killed the deputy chief of the Pakistani Taliban, and the other Friday, which killed seven unidentified suspected militants.
Sharif reacted to Friday’s assault by having the Ministry of Foreign Affairs summon the U.S. charge d’affaires, Richard Hoagland, to register a protest, although it was far milder than his angry critique Monday of domestic policy.
"Drone strikes have a negative impact on the desire of both countries to forge cordial and cooperative relationships, and to ensure peace and stability in the region," Hoagland was told by Tariq Fatemi, Sharif’s adviser on foreign affairs.
There’s little strategic reason, however, for the Pakistani military to want drone strikes to end. They represent the most visible successes against the Pakistani Taliban, known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, breaking its chain of command and coherency as an organization. Some 150,000 Pakistani troops, nearly a quarter of the country’s military, are deployed in the seven northwest tribal areas that are home to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan.
Over the weekend the army wrested control of strategic mountaintop positions in Khyber Agency, where the Pakistani Taliban have successfully resisted military attacks since 2009.
The area is home to the legendary Khyber Pass, one of two land routes the U.S. and its allies use to supply their troops in Afghanistan, but the value of the government offensive is the likely retaking of the Tirah Valley area. That will block a key north-south corridor that the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan have used to escape military operations in one tribal agency by migrating to another area.
"The army has its foot on the throat of the TTP now," said "Okasha," a Pakistan-based al Qaida activist who coordinates with the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. "We will see the dominoes collapse one after another now."
Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Amjad Hadayat contributed to this report from Karachi.