WASHINGTON - The US resumption of drone strikes against militant targets in Pakistan does not signal an improvement in deeply frayed relations between Washington and Islamabad, US officials and experts said on Wednesday. In the first such attack since November 17, at least four militants were killed by missiles fired from an unmanned US drone at a house on outskirts of Miranshah in North Waziristan, Pakistani security and intelligence officials said. Current and former US government officials familiar with the drone programme said the apparent lull in attacks since November represented no major change in US policy governing drone use. US officials insisted there was no formal decision to suspend drone attacks after the wayward November 26 attack.
Officials said that while the operating practices of the drone programme had evolved overtime, the timing of the attacks was based on the availability of adequate targeting intelligence and the suitability of flying conditions and did not depend on the ups and downs of US-Pak ties. But one former US official who has advised President Barack Obama on policy in the region did not discount the possibility the most recent lull in drone attacks might have been calculated, at least in part, to “cool tempers” in Pakistan following the November incident. Officials and experts in Washington said the militants targeted in Wednesday’s air strike were believed to be “foreign fighters” of Arab and possibly also Uzbek extraction. None of the militants killed fit the description of “high-value” targets, US sources said, meaning they were not believed to be leaders of al Qaeda, the Taliban or related militant groups.
ADVANCE NOTICE UNLIKELY: Current and former US and Pakistani government officials and advisers said it was extremely unlikely the US gave Pakistani authorities advance notice of Wednesday’s drone strike, although Pakistan may have been notified either at the time of, or shortly after, the attack. The former Obama adviser said that in every case he knew of before 2007 where the US gave Pakistan notice of a drone strike, targeted militants fled the target location before the drones hit. As a consequence, the former official said, Washington stopped giving Islamabad warning of drone strikes, although intelligence officials from the two countries sometimes shared intelligence on possible drone strike targets. The former official said there was no reason to believe such collaboration occurred in preparing the latest drone attack.
Current and former US officials said that in the wake of the November attack, the US was forced by Pakistani authorities to evacuate an airstrip in Pakistan it used previously to stage drone operations. Some officials said the CIA was well-placed to continue drone operations unfettered from other bases - principally believed to be in Afghanistan. But a former US official said the Pakistan airstrip did provide the US with backup capability, particularly for operations during the bad weather season beginning in mountainous Afghanistan.