ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — President Obama’s commitment to scaling back the use of unmanned aircraft to kill suspected terrorists could pave the way for improved relations between the United States and Pakistan, analysts and political leaders said Friday.
But the government here maintained its insistence that the drone campaign does more harm than good and should be shut down completely.
Obama’s decision to continue using targeted killings abroad while imposing restrictions that could significantly reduce the frequency of drone strikes comes at a particularly sensitive time for Islamabad, as it prepares for a new civilian government led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Since winning a May 11 election, Sharif and his aides have been careful in their remarks, declaring opposition to the drone campaign — a tactic deeply unpopular in Pakistan — without appearing excessively confrontational to Washington, which Islamabad relies on for billions of dollars in military and economic aid.
One of Sharif’s advisers, Sen. Tariq Azeem, called the policy shift outlined by Obama in a major speech Thursday “a positive sign.”
“Apart from killing a few Al Qaeda terrorists, drones have caused immense damage to the image of the U.S.,” Azeem said Friday. “If President Obama has had a rethink, I think it’s a welcome step.”
The United States has relied heavily on its drone campaign to take out Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders holed up in Pakistan’s tribal regions, a swath of rugged territory along the Afghan border that Islamabad has never been able to fully control.
Since Obama took office in January 2009, the U.S. has carried out 293 drone strikes in northwest Pakistan, according to the Long War Journal website. Several top Al Qaeda leaders have been killed in such strikes in recent years, including the terrorist network’s second-in-command, known as Abu Yahya al Libi, in June 2012.
Privately, commanders in Pakistan’s powerful military have acknowledged the utility of drone strikes in taking out top militant commanders and leaders. Under President Asif Ali Zardari’s administration, Pakistan maintained a policy of publicly condemning drone strikes while tacitly allowing them to occur.
But the campaign has been one of the primary sources of friction in Washington’s tenuous relationship with Islamabad. Pakistanis view it as a blatant violation of their nation’s sovereignty and argue it has become a major recruiting tool for militants because of the number of civilians mistakenly killed in the strikes.
In a statement released Friday, Foreign Ministry spokesman, Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, said Pakistan appreciated Obama’s remarks that “force alone cannot make us safer.” But he added that the government maintains that drone strikes “are counter-productive, entail loss of innocent civilian lives … and violate the principles of national sovereignty, territorial integrity and international law.”
Pakistanis also welcomed Obama’s acknowledgment Thursday that drone strikes have caused civilian deaths. “For me and those in my chain of command, these deaths will haunt us as long as we live,” Obama said.
Washington’s assessment of the civilian toll is lower than that of civil-society groups. Nevertheless, said Mirza Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer who represents families of civilians killed in drone strikes, “Last night, he showed some sympathy.”