By Ken Dilanian
Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON: The Obama administration has agreed to Pakistan’s request to stop drone-launched missile strikes except on al-Qaida operational leaders while Islamabad pursues peace talks with local Taliban militants, U.S. officials say.
The informal pause began in late December, seven weeks after a CIA drone strike killed Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud just as negotiations were set to begin, drawing an angry rebuke to Washington from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government.
The stand-down on targeted killings of Taliban leaders in Pakistan “doesn’t impact our list for core al-Qaida,” a U.S. official said Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity about a covert program. “They still have a green light on al-Qaida targets.”
Those targets are fewer these days because al-Qaida’s leadership in northwest Pakistan is increasingly thin on the ground after more than a decade of drone strikes and other counterterrorism operations, including the killing by Navy SEALs of Osama bin Laden in May 2011.
The CIA has not launched a drone strike in Pakistan since Dec. 25 — the longest lull since a six-week halt in November 2011 after U.S.-led NATO forces mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on the border with Afghanistan. That strike worsened tensions with Washington that began with the cross-border raid that killed bin Laden.
The informal agreement to sharply curtail drone strikes was first reported Tuesday by the Washington Post. The pause apparently does not affect surveillance flights.
The CIA declined comment Wednesday.