Reports of covert strikes have gone quiet for more than three weeks as the US attempts to free Raymond Davis, a consulate employee imprisoned after shooting two Pakistanis last month.
Halt in US drone raids in Pakistan linked to embassy man's arrest
ISLAMABAD // The United States has halted drone attacks on militants along Pakistan's western border in a development analysts believe is linked to US attempts to secure the release of its jailed consular employee.
After months of frequent strikes from unmanned US aircraft on militant hideouts on Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, reports of covert strikes have gone quiet for more than three weeks.
Many analysts believe Washington has stopped the attacks to avoid further inflaming Pakistanis just as it pressures a vulnerable Islamabad government to release Raymond Davis, a US consulate employee imprisoned after shooting two Pakistanis last month during what he said was an attempted robbery.
Simbal Khan, an analyst with the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad, said: "This in itself raises a number of questions regarding the US Pakistan strategy as it struggles to balance counter-terrorism … with its public diplomacy."
The decision to halt a campaign that is the centerpiece of US efforts to root out militants launching attacks on its soldiers in Afghanistan also raises questions, Mr Khan said, "about how chasing after terrorist and al Qa'eda targets can be suspended to save the fate of a single US national."
As tempers fray over Mr Davis, who the United States insists is shielded by diplomatic immunity, the government of President Asif Ali Zardari is loath to risk losing billions of dollars in US aid or doing permanent damage to its relationship with the US.
Yet neither can Pakistan afford to unleash popular anger in a case that has galvanised anti-American sentiment.
The strikes have already upset many Pakistanis, who see the attacks as a violation of Pakistani sovereignty and blame them for the death of innocent civilians. Local leaders are often the ones seen at fault.
Samina Ahmed, South Asia project director for the International Crisis Group, said: "It's possible that Washington thinks it shouldn't give the Pakistani public yet another reason to whip up anti-American sentiment even as the Davis case is being dealt with."
The pause in drone strikes is one of the longest since the United States intensified its drone campaign in 2008, according to the Long War Journal, a leading military blog.
The United States and Pakistan do not publicly acknowledge the drone campaign, but reports of the strikes filter out through local media and anonymous intelligence reports.
The New America Foundation, which tracks the strikes, estimated they have killed some 2,189 people from 2004 to January this year. Of those, 1,754 were reportedly militants.
The last reported strike was January 23, when intelligence officials said a US drone fired two missiles targeting a vehicle and a house in the North Waziristan region on the Afghan border, killing at least four militants.
Another missile shortly afterward was reported to kill two militants on a motorbike.
While the drone strikes have killed al Qa'eda and Taliban figures, some question their success when many senior militants are living in cities such as Quetta or Karachi that Pakistan has made off-limits to strikes.
Yet they are now a key part of the US-Pakistan security alliance, forged in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks but long frayed by US complaints that Pakistan has not done enough against militants that don't directly threaten the government.
Muhammad Amir Rana, director of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, said the drone strikes were becoming counterproductive because they were breeding more opponents of the state.
The Davis shooting in a city appears to have galvanised Pakistanis in a way that the drone attacks in remote areas have not.
On Friday, protesters in Lahore and other cities demanded Mr Davis be tried in Pakistan, some of them burning tyres and US flags a day after the Lahore High Court pushed off a hearing on Mr Davis's fate until March 14.