As the US-Pakistan relationship continues to unravel, the US has placed its covert air campaign that targets al Qaeda and Taliban operatives in Pakistan’s tribal agencies “on hold.”
Several US intelligence officials involved in the CIA program, which uses unmanned Predator and Reaper strike aircraft, more commonly called drones, told The Long War Journal that US officials fear that an attack at this point in time would further damage the already fragile relationship between the US and Pakistan.
Relations between the two countries have been deteriorating over the past two years as the US has ramped up the drone program while accusing Pakistan of supporting the Taliban and other terror groups. The Raymond Davis affair and the US raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan earlier this year further inflamed the Pakistanis. But the Nov. 26 US airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani troops in Mohmand has led to Pakistan’s shutting down the Chaman and Torkham (Khyber Pass) border crossings to NATO supply convoys.
“There is concern that another hit [by the drones] will push US-Pakistan relations past the point of no return,” one official told The Long War Journal. “We don’t know how far we can push them [Pakistan], how much more they are willing to tolerate.”
One official was clear that the program is “on hold” but that they would consider striking if a target of opportunity presented itself.
“We may strike soon if an extremely high value target pops up, but otherwise there is hesitation to pull the trigger right now,” the intelligence official said. The official refused to say which terror leaders would cause the US to reconsider the pause, and attack.
The drone strikes have stopped since mid-November, after the pace of strikes began picking up during the previous two months. The last US strike was on Nov. 16, or 26 days ago. This is one of the longest pauses in the program since CIA contractor Raymond Davis killed two Pakistanis on the streets of Lahore in what he claimed was self-defense early this year.
In addition to closing the Chaman and Torkham border crossings, Pakistan has responded to the Nov. 26 strike in Mohmand by shutting down the Shamsi Airbase to the US military and the CIA. The base was used to support US Predators and Reapers flying sorties in Pakistan.
Also, the Pakistani military claims it has beefed up its anti-aircraft capabilities along its western border and said it would deny its airspace to the US drones. The Pakistani Army is said to be issuing shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles to its troops on the border.
Additionally, Pakistan boycotted the Bonn Conference, which was held last week as part of an effort to get the international community and regional actors to help Afghanistan and end the war against the Taliban.
The pause in the drone program, and Pakistan’s vow to shoot down the US aircraft, threaten the Obama administration’s strategy against al Qaeda. The administration has elevated counterterrorism efforts, of which the drone strikes are the premier tool, over counterinsurgency as the primary means to defeat al Qaeda and allied terror groups. If the US is unable to strike in Pakistan’s tribal areas, the terror groups headquartered there will again be able to operate unfettered.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.