Pakistani parliament says no to US drones

ZARAR KHAN Associated Press Published:

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 proposed new terms in the country's troubled relations with the United States.

The commission was tasked with reviewing ties with Washington after the airstrikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, triggering outrage in the country and presenting an opportunity for the army -- under pressure following the raid on Osama bin Laden last year -- to wrestle back some space in its often turbulent relationship with Washington.

Since November, U.S. officials have cited the importance of the parliamentary review when asked about restoring Washington's ties with Pakistan, saying they were exercising "strategic patience" in dealing with the country.

Parliament's demands could complicate efforts to rebuild the relationship, but the commission didn't say the supply lines should be permanently closed, as many Pakistanis would like, rather that the government should charge the U.S. and NATO more money for the privilege.

Washington wants to rebuild its relationship with Pakistan, which is seen as key to the success of striking a deal with insurgents in neighboring Afghanistan. The supply lines are important for supplying fuel and other non-lethal goods to troops, and will be crucial to trucking out equipment as the U.S. draws down soldiers.

The demand to end drone strikes was one of the first read out by commission head Raza Rabbani.

"The US must review its footprints in Pakistan," he said. "This means the cessation of drone strikes inside Pakistan."

The joint session of the parliament was expected to immediately debate the recommendations, but that was shelved after an opposition leader said his party needed time to study them. The issue is to be debated again on Monday.

The government and the army rather than parliament will ultimately decide whether to reopen ties with the United States, but the debate could influence the decision. Analysts say the decision to place the issue before parliament 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.

Most pundits predict the country will reopen the supply lines soon and that the U.S. will also continue with drone strikes.

The strikes are unpopular among Pakistanis and are publicly opposed by the Pakistani army and government. But their frequency has dropped significantly in recent months, which makes them less politically explosive.

The issue is muddied, however, by the fact that in private the army has been known to approve at least some of the strikes, and provide intelligence on them, raising questions over whether they technically violate the sovereignty of the country as their detractors in Pakistan claim. American officials rarely talk about the program in public or answer questions from reporters about it.

Privately U.S. officials have said the drone strikes are key to the war against al-Qaida and the Taliban. Washington is seen as unlikely to permanently stop them, regardless of what parliament says, which has often issued resolutions against the attacks.

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.