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Drones a sticking point for US, Pakistan

ISLAMABAD - Making up is never easy. But as Pakistan and the United States try to restart their troubled relationship after a year of spectacular crises, the difference could come down to drones.

For the Obama administration, facing a faltering war effort and increasingly distrustful allies in Afghanistan, the covert CIA drone strike campaign centered on North and South Waziristan in northwestern Pakistan has acquired new relevance.

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Although the drones are best known for targeting senior commanders of Al Qaeda - another two were reported killed in January - they also play a vital role in combating cross-border infiltration from Taliban havens inside Pakistan. Of the 10 confirmed strikes this year, six hit vehicles filled with fighters that, in several cases, were headed for the Afghan border, a US official said.

“We must protect the troops, and almost all of that stuff is in Waziristan,’’ said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the drone program is classified.

Interviews with militants in those areas leave little doubt that the drones have disrupted their operations, driving fugitive leaders deeper into the mountains. But that matters little in mainstream Pakistan, where public discourse rings with thunderous condemnations of breached sovereignty and civilian casualties. Here, the CIA campaign is as unpopular as ever - and could stymie efforts over the coming days to revive diplomatic relations with Washington that have been frozen for four months now.

On Tuesday, President Asif Ali Zardari will convene a special sitting of Parliament that aims to improve his government’s strained ties with the United States, which have been suspended since US warplanes killed 24 Pakistani troops on the Afghanistan border in November. Public outrage over the shooting capped a tumultuous year for the countries’ relationship, already rocked by a shooting by a CIA contractor in Lahore and the commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

“We want this relationship to be transparent and predictable,’’ said Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington.

US officials hope the parliamentary debate will pave the way for a normalization of relations by early April, end a months-long blockade of NATO supply lines though Pakistan, and boost faltering efforts to draw the Afghan Taliban into peace talks. All those issues are critical to US plans to withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan in 2014. But signs are that the Pakistani debate will be dominated by strident calls for an end to drone strikes.

“The drones are killing innocent bystanders, including children and women,’’ Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the leader of the opposition in Parliament, said in an interview. “They must be stopped forthwith.’’

US officials say there is no question of grounding the unmanned aircraft, which have become a central weapon in the Obama administration’s counterterrorism arsenal. A senior US official in Washington said the CIA had consistently taken precautions to reduce risk to civilians, and noted that some strikes had killed Pakistan’s insurgent enemies, too. “These efforts have been extremely precise and effective,’’ said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

In North and South Waziristan, the tribal districts where 95 percent of about 265 strikes ordered by the Obama administration have occurred, the drones have sown fear and paranoia among Taliban fighters who, facing a technologically superior enemy, have adopted some unusual countermeasures.

During an interview last month in Shawal, a thickly forested district of plunging valleys that became a haven for Al Qaeda after 2001, a senior Taliban commander, Wali ur-Rehman, ordered his fighters to scan a newly arrived car with a camcorder. Rehman explained that the camera could somehow detect otherwise invisible signals from the ‘patrai’ - local slang for small electronic tracking devices that, many tribesmen believe, guide US missiles to their target.

“This is our new weapon,’’ said Rehman, who has a $5 million US government bounty on his head, pointing to the Sony camera. “It has saved a lot of lives.’’

Whether that was true is unclear, but a former CIA official said the agency does use tracking devices to identify targets.

Another militant commander, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the killing of several innocent tribesmen by the Taliban’s “spy squads’’ had sparked discord in militant ranks.

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