LAHORE, Pakistsan — Pakistan on Wednesday strongly condemned a U.S. drone strike in its tribal area in another sign that the future of what the Obama administration has called its most effective weapon against al Qaida is in doubt.
There was no allegation that any of the six people who died in the strike in the Angoor Adda area of South Waziristan, near the Afghan border, were civilians. But Pakistan denounced it nonetheless.
"We have repeatedly said that such attacks are counterproductive and only contribute to strengthen the hands of the terrorists," the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement. "Drone attacks have become a core irritant in the counter-terror campaign."
The drone program, which uses unmanned aircraft to attack suspected militants in Pakistan's wild tribal area, has been drastically reduced since late January, when Raymond Davis, a former Special Forces soldier working for the CIA, was imprisoned for shooting dead two Pakistani men.
After a record year in 2010 during which the U.S. conducted 118 drone attacks aimed at suspected terrorists, there have been just 22 so far this year, according to a tally kept by the New America Foundation, an independent research organization based in Washington.
The last attack prior to Wednesday was March 17, the day after Davis was released from custody after the families of the two dead forgave him after receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in a so-called "blood money" settlement.
That strike killed 40 people that the U.S. says were militants, but that Pakistan said included civilians.
Wednesday's strike came just two days after Pakistan's spy chief, Lt Gen Shuja Pasha, held meetings with his CIA counterpart in Washington amid reports in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, that he would demand the end to the drone campaign.
Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said Wednesday that the drones pushed civilians in the tribal area to side with the extremists.
"We were able to separate militants from local tribal people, and when drone attacks take place the local tribes get united with militants," Gilani told parliament.
Whether Pakistani officials really want the program to end, however, is unclear. Several officials said that rather than an end to the program, they want the program scaled back and placed under strict requirements that U.S. officials provide advance warning of the strikes.
"No cessation, just toning down to only important targets," said one senior Pakistani official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject.
U.S. officials rarely speak publicly about the drone program. But in 2009, CIA Director Leon Panetta called the drones "the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al Qaeda leadership."
A U.S. official in Washington said Wednesday that the drone program was needed because Pakistan doesn't move quickly enough. "When bad guys are spotted doing bad things that could lead to loss of life, the Pakistanis understand that they have to take action — or we will," said the official, who requested anonymity because drone operations are classified.
Al Qaida has admitted that the drones have severely limited its ability to use the tribal area as a safe haven, training ground and place to plot attacks.
"There were many areas where we once had freedom, but now they have been lost," Ustadh Ahmad Farooq, a senior figure in the terror network, said in an audio recording released in January. "We are the ones that are losing people, we are the ones facing shortages of resources. Our land is shrinking and drones are flying in the sky."
Top Al Qaida figures killed in drone attacks include bomb makers, financiers and strategists. Afghan and Pakistani Taliban commanders killed include Baitullah Mehsud, who was Pakistan's most-wanted terrorist when he was killed by a drone attack in 2009.
Al Qaida's founder, Osama bin Laden, and its deputy leader, Ayman Al-Zawahri, may also be hiding out in the tribal area, which would make them vulnerable to the drones.
The drone strikes, however, are deeply unpopular in Pakistan, where many believe they violate the country's sovereignty and kill mostly civilians. Pakistanis also believe that the strikes are symptomatic of an out-of-control CIA presence aimed primarily at undermining Pakistan's nuclear weapons program.
Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst based in Lahore, said the arrest of Davis, whose activities on behalf of the CIA were unknown to Pakistan's military and its spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, fueled the drone controversy.
"With the Raymond Davis case everything came to the surface. The army is sensitive to public opinion and had to take a tough position," said Rizvi. "The ISI wants to rearticulate the relationship with the CIA."
The case of Davis, who reportedly was providing security for other U.S. agents spying on a Pakistani militant group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, without the ISI's knowledge, fed concerns that the CIA was running operations in Pakistan without notifying Pakistani officials. The CIA operation was particularly sensitive because Lashkar-e-Taiba has historic links with the ISI.
A Pakistani security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue with the news, media said that the ISI was concerned that there are 40 to 60 CIA personnel "who are operating behind our backs."
"We need to work together on the basis of trust, respect and equality. We must be treated as allies, not satellites," the security official added.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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