ISLAMABAD — Just days after taking power, Pakistan's new government summoned a top U.S. envoy Saturday to lodge a protest over a U.S. drone strike, suggesting that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's team fully intends to make good on its promise to aggressively push for an end to such strikes.
Friday night's drone strike near the Afghan border, which was said to have killed seven militants, came two days after Sharif was sworn in as premier and the same day his Cabinet members took their oaths. Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N handily won general elections last month and is expected to govern with a relatively strong mandate because it doesn't need to rely on coalition partners.
Sharif, who wants to pursue peace talks with militants threatening his country, has insisted the U.S. stop the drone strikes, saying they violate Pakistan's sovereignty and are counterproductive because they often kill innocent civilians and stoke anti-U.S. sentiment in this nation of 180 million.
The U.S. insists the CIA-run strikes primarily kill al-Qaida and other militants who threaten the West as well as efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. In a recent speech, President Barack Obama pledged more transparency and restrictions on the highly secretive program.
Sharif adviser Tariq Fatemi, acting on the premier's instructions, summoned U.S. Embassy Charge D'Affaires Richard Hoagland to the Foreign Office on Saturday to complain about the latest drone strike, according to a Pakistani government statement. U.S. Ambassador Richard Olson was out of Pakistan at the time.
"The importance of bringing an immediate end to drone strikes was emphasized," the government statement said. "It was also stressed that these drone strikes have a negative impact on the mutual desire of both countries to forge a cordial and cooperative relationship and to ensure peace and stability in the region."
A U.S. Embassy official confirmed the encounter but did not provide further details. He requested anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly talk about diplomatic discussions.
Issuing the summons so quickly after taking power indicates Sharif wants to quickly carve out as much political space as he can — domestically and in his relations with the U.S. It could also be a fairly calculated move in this country, where the military retains significant power and where political rivals have gained traction by being even more vocal against drones.
While the previous government of the Pakistan People's Party did, on occasion, summon U.S. envoys over drone strikes, it usually stuck to routine press releases denouncing them. It was also widely believed that many People's Party leaders privately supported the drone strikes.
At the same time, Sharif has to strike a balance in his approach to a powerful ally such as the U.S., which has provided Pakistan with billions in military and humanitarian aid over the years, said Babar Sattar, a political and legal analyst in Pakistan.
"Reaction more stringent than this with an ally and friend would obviously have the possibility of disrupting the relationship — and he's made it clear that's not what he wants," Sattar said, noting that Sharif has not, for example, backed calls by some activists that Pakistan shoot down the drones.
Sharif also has been far more careful than his People's Party predecessors in his rhetoric about militancy in Pakistan and has said he wants to enter a dialogue with the Pakistani Taliban.
That has raised concerns in the West that he might be too sympathetic to the Islamist extremists, but he also may simply want to exhaust the option of peace talks so as to later gain public support for military action, Sattar said. A stop to drone strikes could give him more space in that process.
In its first drone strike in Pakistan after the country's recent election, the U.S. in late May killed Waliur Rehman, deputy leader of the Pakistani Taliban. The Pakistani Taliban, who have killed thousands of people in bombings and other attacks across the country, confirmed Rehman's death and promptly said they would not talk peace with Sharif.
Sharif — while not naming Rehman or the Taliban — spoke out against that drone strike, and his party in a statement noted that it was "highly regrettable" that it came after Obama's speech.
The drone strike Friday night struck a compound in Mangrothi village in the Shawal area, along the border dividing the North and South Waziristan tribal regions, two Pakistani intelligence officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information on the record.
The tribal regions are nearly impossible to access for foreign and many Pakistani journalists, so the report could not be independently confirmed. But North and South Waziristan are known to be havens for multiple militant groups, including the Pakistani Taliban.
The U.S. has launched hundreds of drone strikes in Pakistan since 2008, though the frequency has fallen significantly in recent years. For all his rhetoric, it remains unclear if Sharif can actually stop the U.S. from using the drones to launch missiles at militants Washington believes are a threat.
For one thing, despite his numbers in parliament, Sharif still has to contend with Pakistan's army for influence over security and foreign policies. And If he's unable to end the strikes in Pakistan as the months wear on, that could give more room to opposition politician Imran Khan, the former cricket star, to drain support from Sharif and his party. Khan has been especially strident in campaigning against the drone strikes.
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