Pakistani parliament says no to US drones
ISLAMABAD (AP) -- A Pakistani parliamentary commission demanded Tuesday an end to American drone attacks inside the country and an apology for deadly U.S. airstrikes in November as part of a review of its near-severed relations with the United States.
The commission was tasked with reviewing ties with Washington after errant airstrikes four months ago killed 24 Pakistani soldiers and prompted Islamabad to close its borders to U.S. and NATO supply lines to neighboring Afghanistan.
The incident presented an opportunity for the army -- furious at the Americans and under public pressure following the U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden last year that was seen in Pakistan as a violation of the country's sovereignty -- to gain a negotiating advantage in its turbulent relationship with Washington.
American officials hope the oft-delayed review will lead to the reopening of the supply lines.
"The U.S. must review its footprints in Pakistan," commission head Raza Rabbani said, reading the recommendations. "This means the cessation of drone strikes inside Pakistan."
This demand could complicate efforts to rebuild the relationship. However, the commission didn't say the supply lines should be permanently closed, as many Pakistanis would like, but rather that the government should charge the U.S. and NATO more money for the privilege.
Washington wants to rebuild its relationship with Pakistan, whose cooperation is seen as key to the success of striking a deal with insurgents in neighboring Afghanistan. Also, the supply lines are important for transporting fuel and other non-lethal goods to troops, and will be crucial to trucking out equipment as the U.S. draws down its forces.
The joint session of parliament was expected to immediately debate the recommendations, but that was shelved after opposition leader Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said his party needed time to study them. He hinted the party could reject them, possibly causing more delays to U.S. hopes of a speedy resumption of ties. The issue is to be debated again on Monday.
The army, and to a lesser extent the civilian government, will ultimately decide whether to restore ties with the United States, but parliament could influence the decision. Analysts say placing the issue before lawmakers was to give the government and the army some political cover, so they could claim the support of the country before quietly reopening the supply routes.
"If drone attacks really are stopped and the national sovereignty is really ensured we can approve the recommendations," said opposition leader Khan. "Otherwise we are not ready to give any authority to this government to take decisions under the garb of parliament."
The recommendations said any new agreement on the supply lines should have a clause stipulating their closure in the event that Pakistan's sovereignty is violated by the U.S. or NATO, but didn't explicitly mention drone strikes in this regard.
The demand for an "unconditional apology" for the November attacks could also complicate the rebuilding of ties.
Washington has expressed regret for the border incident, but avoided formally saying sorry. U.S. officials were reportedly preparing to apologize last month, but had to postpone the plan after U.S. soldiers burnt copies of the Quran in Afghanistan. President Barack Obama apologized for that, earning him criticism from political opponents. He also apologized after an American soldier last week allegedly killed 16 Afghan villagers in a shooting spree.
The drone strikes are unpopular among Pakistanis and have long been publicly opposed by the Pakistani army and government, which maintain they fan support for militancy even as they kill insurgents also targeting Islamabad. But their frequency has dropped significantly in recent months, which makes them less politically charged.
The issue is muddied, however, by the fact that in private the army has approved at least some of the strikes, and provided intelligence on them, raising questions over whether they technically violate the sovereignty of the country. American officials rarely talk about the program in public.
"This is neither the first time, not will it be last, that the parliament has demanded an end to drone strikes," said Samina Ahmed, who heads the International Crisis Group in Pakistan. "This is more performance than substance. The military is still the key actor as far as security policy is concerned."
She said the security establishment had "no expectation" that the drone strikes would end.
Privately U.S. officials have said the drone strikes are key to the war against al-Qaida and the Taliban, and Washington is unlikely to permanently stop them.
Pakistan, which had supported the Afghan Taliban, sided with the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, earning it billions of dollars and ending its international isolation. It needs American assistance to keep its economy afloat, while the U.S. needs its help in reaching a deal with the Afghan Taliban, whose leaders are believed to be on its soil and subject to the influence of its security forces.
Gen. James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, said earlier this month he expected to visit Pakistan in mid-to-late March to talk with leaders about reopening the supply routes. His would be the first trip by a U.S. military official since the airstrikes, and will be taken as a high-level sign that Pakistan's army leadership wants to re-engage.
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