Obama admits 'worst-kept secret': US flies drones over Pakistan

For the first time, President Obama publicly acknowledged US drone attacks in Pakistan, which could allow Washington to better explain its strategy to Pakistani critics.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP/File
In this 2010 file photo, a US Predator drone flies over the moon above Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan. President Obama publicly acknowledged US drone attacks in Pakistan during a Q&A Monday.

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President Obama publicly acknowledged the covert US drone program in Pakistan during a Q&A Monday – the first public admission of what CNN described as "the worst kept secret in Washington and Pakistan."

The US has kept quiet about the program partially for the sake of the Pakistani government, which publicly and vociferously condemns the program because of strong public opposition at home, but still permits the strikes. The drones target Al Qaeda and Taliban militants based in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the Afghan border. 

Aside from a statement from Pakistan's foreign ministry saying that the drone attacks are "unlawful, counterproductive and hence unacceptable," according to Pakistan's Geo News, there has so far been little reaction to the disclosure in Pakistani media, which is usually quick to condemn drone attacks.

Obama's acknowledgement came in response to a question during the Q&A in a Google+ video chat room interview, Monday. 

"A lot of these strikes have been in the FATA, and going after Al Qaeda suspects who are up in very tough terrain on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. For us to be able to get them in another way would involve probably a lot more intrusive military actions than the one we're already engaging in," he said, according to CNN.

Obama defended the program, saying it had “not caused a huge number of civilian casualties” and that it was “important for everybody to understand that this thing is kept on a very tight leash," Agence France-Presse reports. According to the Washington-based New America Foundation, at least 1,715 people (and possibly many more) have been killed in Pakistan by drones in the past eight years.

The drone program was brought to a temporary halt in November, after NATO forces killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at a border outpost, mistaking them for militants, but resumed this year.

Some officials believe less secrecy is actually preferred because the US could better explain its decisions. Amid strained US-Pakistan relations in the wake of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden last year, the US has been more deferential to Pakistan over the use of drones, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Proponents of more disclosure inside the administration and the military argue US secrecy has fueled charges in Pakistan that the drone strikes frequently kill civilians. They say releasing at least some details about the operations will help deflect criticism.

According to officials, changes were made to the drone program last year to give greater weight to diplomatic considerations, including relations with Pakistan, in deciding when to launch strikes. 

The New York Times notes that although the use of drones in Pakistan has been covert – unlike in Afghanistan and Iraq – intense public interest and the inability to completely hide the explosions have made US officials willing to discuss the drone program on condition of anonymity. The Obama administration has substantially expanded the drone program, although according to tallies from Agence France-Presse, their use declined last year from 101 in 2010 to 64 in 2011.

On Jan. 28, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani condemned the resumption of US drone strikes earlier this month and expressed concern about the "trust deficit" between the two countries, Pakistan's The Express Tribune reports. 

“Drones are counter-productive. We have very ably isolated militants from the local tribes. When there are drone attacks that creates sympathy for them again,” Gilani told reporters in Davos.

“It makes the job of the political leadership and the military very difficult. We have never allowed drone attacks and we have always maintained that they are unacceptable, illegal and counterproductive.”

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