Although the drone raids started in 2004, the official request for stopping the strikes was conveyed earlier this month when ISI chief Lt-Gen Shuja Pasha visited Washington.
According to diplomatic sources, Mr Pasha told acting CIA Director Michael J. Morell that the raids had become a major source of embarrassment for the Pakistani government as it was blamed for failing to stop a foreign power from killing its own citizens.
Before this, Pakistan had publicly protested the strikes but had never officially asked the United States to discontinue them, although Pakistani leaders often complained that drones were killing too many innocent civilians.
The Pakistanis say that since June 18, 2004, when the CIA began the drone strikes, the unmanned aircraft had killed more than 2,500 people, mostly civilians. The US spy agency has conducted almost 250 strikes since 2004.
The strikes have jumped from fewer than 50 in the Bush administration, to more than 200 strikes since President Barack Obama took office.
The US government, however, rejects such claims as incorrect, insisting that drones are extraordinarily accurate. “There hasn’t been a single collateral death” since last year, President Obama’s chief counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan told a recent news briefing.
The dispute took an interesting turn on Friday, when former US intelligence chief Dennis Blair said that the United States should stop its drone campaign in Pakistan. The CIA’s drone operation aimed at Al Qaeda was backfiring by damaging the US-Pakistan relationship, he said.
But the top White House adviser on Pakistan and Afghanistan, Lt-Gen (retd) Douglas Lute, rejected this argument. Speaking at the same forum as Mr Blair in Aspen, Colorado, Mr Lute said now was the time to keep up US counter-terrorist actions in Pakistan, even if they upset the Pakistani government.
Pakistan’s Ambassador Husain Haqqani told the same audience at the Aspen Security Forum that his government was pushing for a reduction because they’d begun to fray public support.
”Part of the agreement is neither side is going to talk too much about the drone strikes,” he said. “They’ve taken out many people who needed to be taken out …but if the cost is if support for the overall war starts to decline, you have to take that into account.”
Govt clips diplomats’ wings
Strict enforcement of travel restrictions on diplomats based in Pakistan has escalated tensions with the United States and the issue is threatening to turn into another major diplomatic spat between the two.
For now the two are, for the second time this year, wrangling over the interpretation of Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961 (VCDR), which governs diplomatic ties between countries.
Although the Foreign Office had notified all diplomatic missions, including the US, in June that diplomats would require a no-objection certificate (NoC) while travelling to other parts of the country, things came to a head when Ambassador Cameron Munter was stopped at Benazir Bhutto Airport Islamabad and asked for the document permitting his travel to Karachi.
Ambassador Munter, who was reportedly in possession of the document, took strong exception to having been asked about the NoC and strongly protested over the incident. The issue was then taken up with President Zardari.
The incident occurred earlier this week when the ambassador was travelling to Karachi. He was initially scheduled to visit Karachi on Tuesday, but the trip was put off for two days. The US consulate in Karachi had said at the time that the change in the ambassador’s itinerary was made for reasons of health.
The Americans see the NoC requirement as a violation of Article 26 of VCDR, which obligates the host state to “ensure to all members of the mission freedom of movement and travel in its territory”.
However, Pakistani officials contest the US embassy’s view saying under VCDR movements could be regulated for national security purposes.
Foreign Office in a rejoinder to the US claim said: “Pakistan is fully mindful of its obligations under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.”
The FO statement further denied that the curbs were US specific insisting that the requirement was for security of the diplomats.
“There are general guidelines regarding travel of Pakistan-based diplomats, designed only to ensure their safety and security, which have existed for a long time,” the statement explained.
Pakistani officials in their interactions with the US officials have tried to play down the travel regime telling their interlocutors that it was “preventive rather than restrictive”.
Both the US and Pakistani officials said they were working to resolve the issue.
A security official, speaking on the background, said the restrictions were enforced because of the travel of under-cover foreign intelligence agents, who have been assigned to Pakistan as diplomats.
Even if, he did not explicitly say the checks were meant to counter the movement of the CIA officials, but it wasn’t difficult to judge from his conversation that it is about CIA personnel, who they believe were still operating without coordination with ISI despite revised terms of engagement of the two agencies.
CIA’s footprint in the country was cut down after the May 2 raid on Osama bin Laden compound in Abbottabad, but number of its (CIA) agents were issued visas after the two spy agencies reworked their relationship and the US intelligence agency agreed on greater transparency about its operations inside Pakistan.
Background discussions with officials at Foreign Office suggested that they realised that holding up Ambassador Munter was a little too much and that they were contemplating a review of the NoC requirement for exempting the heads of missions in order to prevent such embarrassing incidents from recurring.