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A two-month lull in drone strikes in Pakistan ended yesterday with a strike in North Waziristan. The temporary halt was widely believed to be an attempt by the US to prevent an irreparable break in an already fragile relationship after a mistaken US attack killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers – although it's unclear whether ties have sufficiently mended.
The strike is the first since the US mistakenly staged an airstrike against a Pakistani military position along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in mid-November, causing yet another diplomatic crisis between the two countries. The US insists it believed the position was held by militants, who use the border region as a staging ground for attacks on NATO troops in Afghanistan.
Amid Pakistani fury after the mid-November strike, the US heeded a Pakistani call to vacate the air base in southwestern Pakistan that was used for staging drone strikes – although it denied that the two-month cessation of drone attacks was linked to the incident, Reuters reports. US officials told the agency that the break in strikes was merely due to a lack of intelligence on targets.
However, The Associated Press reports that US officials said the lull was part of an effort "to tamp down tensions with Pakistan," as does The New York Times in a report yesterday. Pakistan also closed down critical NATO supply routes to Afghanistan after the November strike, and the US is still working to get the routes reopened.
Relations don't seem to have improved much since November, according to the AP – Pakistan rejected a US probe into the incident that attributed the attack to "a persistent lack of trust" and "a series of communications and coordination errors on both sides."
According to the AP, it was the longest break in drone use in Pakistan since the campaign got underway in 2009.
Drones have been a critical part of the Obama administration's counterterrorism operations in the region, particularly as the war winds down.
The New York Times reported yesterday that the lull has emboldened Al Qaeda and Pakistani militants, allowing them to regroup and increase attacks on both Pakistani security forces and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Diplomats and intelligence analysts say the pause in C.I.A. missile strikes — the longest in Pakistan in more than three years — is offering for now greater freedom of movement to an insurgency that had been splintered by in-fighting and battered by American drone attacks in recent months. Several feuding factions said last week that they were patching up their differences, at least temporarily, to improve their image after a series of kidnappings and, by some accounts, to focus on fighting Americans in Afghanistan.
A logistics operative with the Haqqani terrorist group, which uses sanctuaries in Pakistan to carry out attacks on allied troops in Afghanistan, said militants could still hear drones flying surveillance missions, day and night. “There are still drones, but there is no fear anymore,” he said in a telephone interview. The logistics operative said fighters now felt safer to roam more freely.