A break in suspected U.S. drone strikes against Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders in northwestern Pakistan appears to be helping Islamabad's efforts to negotiate peace with the insurgents.
Experts and negotiators said the absence of drone strikes for nearly three months in Pakistan's northwestern Waziristan tribal region has facilitated contacts with the Taliban. It has raised hopes that Islamabad can negotiate peace with the Islamist radicals, whose decade-old insurgency has killed more than 50,000 Pakistani civilians and soldiers.
Former Brigadier General Mehmood Shah said that drone strikes would have proved a major disruption for the now two-month old talks. "One cannot predict whether the negotiations will succeed or not, but for the moment the absence of drone strikes is helping them to move forward."
The Taliban have also taken notice that the strikes have stopped. Yousaf Shah, an Islamic cleric nominated by the Taliban to represent them in the negotiations, said the absence of drone strikes has even prompted the Taliban to feel hopeful.
Shah has made numerous trips to the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) headquarters in the North Waziristan tribal district near Afghanistan's border. He said that while drones still hover in the skies, they have not fired missiles for several weeks. "I don't know whether this is because of a quiet understanding with our government, but the pause in drone attacks is positive."
Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan's de-facto foreign minister, recently said that Washington has come to accept Islamabad's argument that drone strikes are counterproductive. "The damage, the negative fallout of drone attacks far exceeds any advantage you may get in getting a high-value [terrorist] target," he told CNN on March 13.
Islamabad has publically opposed drone strikes for years, although Western officials say its security services have provided intelligence for some attacks. Some senior Pakistani army generals have publically praised the drone strikes for their precision targeting of Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders.
Many mainstream political parties, however, are against the drones. The ruling Pakistani Muslim League Nawaz and Tehreek-e Insaf, a leading opposition party, have argued that the strikes kill civilians in the tribal areas, provoking retaliatory terrorist attacks in Pakistani cities. They also accuse Washington of spoiling Islamabad's peace overtures toward the Taliban by targeting insurgent leaders in attacks.
The TTP postponed negotiations with the government after an alleged drone strike killed its leader Hakimullah Mehsud in November. Mehsud was killed in North Waziristan, where most drone strikes have occurred.
Commentator Khadim Hussain said that the halt in drone strikes will help educate the Pakistani public about the threats posed by Islamist extremists. "The excuse that the U.S. is sabotaging peace [through drone strikes] in Pakistan no longer exists. All the hurdles we have now are internal. Whatever happens now will be the responsibility of Pakistani security forces and Taliban factions."
Since 2004, an estimated 2,500 people have died in more than 350 drone strikes in Pakistan. While there is furious debate about the program and the number of civilian fatalities it has caused, scores of Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Central Asian and Chinese Islamist radical leaders are confirmed to have been killed in these attacks.
Written by Abubakar Siddique, based on reporting by Abdul Hai Kakar.