ISLAMABAD — Pakistani officials acknowledged this week that the Obama administration had told Pakistan’s prime minister during his recent visit to Washington that there would be no letup in U.S. drone strikes intended to kill key terrorist leaders in Pakistan.
Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan’s de facto foreign minister, told members of the Pakistani Senate on Wednesday that U.S. officials had specifically named Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud and al Qaida leader Ayman al Zawahiri in their conversations with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who’d used meetings in Washington in October to press for an end to the drone strikes.
Eight days after Sharif met with President Barack Obama, drone-fired missiles killed Mehsud at the gate of his house in Dande Darpakhel in North Waziristan as he was returning from a meeting with other Taliban leaders at a nearby mosque.
Aziz didn’t say whether U.S. officials had told Pakistan that the Nov. 1 attack was about to take place, a question that’s been the subject of speculation here since the strike. Pakistani officials immediately denounced the strike, saying Mehsud’s death undercut government plans to invite the Pakistani Taliban to peace talks the next day.
But Pakistan almost certainly would have been aware that a drone had entered its airspace, others have said, because of a three-tiered coordination and liaison arrangement that stations 26 Pakistani military officers with U.S. troops in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Additionally, the drone’s presence would have been detected by Pakistan’s air defense radars deployed to monitor the northwest border with Afghanistan and the air corridors in the North Waziristan and South Waziristan tribal areas. Those radars can track aircraft, including drones, flying as high as 50,000 feet, according to army and air forces officers who’ve previously worked along the border. They spoke only on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak to the press.
Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N party campaigned in the May general election, in part, on promises to use diplomacy to end the Pakistani Taliban insurgency and U.S. drone strikes. After Sharif assumed the prime minister’s post in June, he publicly ordered the military to end its policy of “condemning drones in public while being complicit in them.” He used his days in Washington on Oct. 21-24 to press for an end to the strikes.
While members of his government condemned the Nov. 1 strike, Sharif himself has made no public comment.
On Thursday, the United States demonstrated that it intends to continue attacking terrorism suspects in Pakistan, using a drone to launch missiles at a seminary in a government-controlled district operated by the Haqqani Network, an Afghan militant insurgent group that’s thought to have links to the Pakistani military.
The early morning strike in the Hangu district of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province was well outside the tribal areas where most U.S. drones are used. Three senior Haqqani network operatives were killed in what was only the second time since 2006 that drones have been used outside the “air corridors” established to contain them.
It seemed unlikely that Pakistan’s military would have condoned Thursday’s strike because the Haqqani network has worked with the military in the past. U.S. officials have repeatedly criticized the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate for tolerating the presence in Pakistan of the Haqqani network, which has regularly attacked U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
In his briefing Wednesday to the Pakistani Senate, Aziz didn’t say whether the Obama administration’s warnings on drone strikes extended to leaders of the Haqqani network.
The seminary is to the east of North Waziristan, and it’s one of several in an area the Haqqani network has used since the 1980s, when it was part of the U.S.-backed forces fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Pakistan has defended its relationship with the Haqqani network, saying the group has served as a go-between with the Pakistani Taliban and might prove useful in arranging peace talks with Afghanistan’s Taliban and the Afghan and U.S. governments.
Pakistan’s military didn’t respond to requests for comment, and the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad declined to comment.
Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent.