CIA halts drone launches from Pakistan base
WASHINGTON - Three months ago, the CIA suspended its longstanding use of an air base in Pakistan as a launch site for armed drones targeting members of Al Qaeda and other militant groups, according to US and Pakistani officials.
US personnel and Predator drones remain at the facility, in the southern province of Baluchistan, with security provided by the Pakistani military, officials from both countries said. In recent days, Pakistan has publicly declared that it “ended’’ all US flights from the base in the wake of the secret US commando raid that killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May.
But US and Pakistani officials said the launches were halted in April, weeks before the bin Laden raid, after a dispute over a CIA contractor who fatally shot two Pakistani citizens in Lahore in January.
An American official said the CIA’s decision to suspend the launches was part of a US effort to “pay attention to the sensitivities’’ of the Pakistanis, who had objected to a claim of diplomatic immunity for the contractor.
Although Pakistan has continued to voice sharp public criticism over the shooting and the bin Laden raid, officials from both countries said the rupture in their intelligence cooperation has slowly begun to heal. Pakistan has reversed its freeze on visas for US intelligence officials, they said, and allowed dozens of CIA personnel to reenter the country.
All US drone strikes in the past three months have been launched from Afghanistan, in the vicinity of Jalalabad, according to the officials, who spoke about intelligence matters only on the condition of anonymity.
The New America Foundation, which tracks the strikes, has listed 23 raids since the beginning of April, all but one in Pakistan’s tribal regions of North and South Waziristan. A June 20 attack was reported in Kurram, an area north of North Waziristan along the Afghanistan border.
The drone program has become increasingly controversial as the Obama administration has expanded its use beyond the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Lethal missiles have been launched from unmanned aircraft in at least five countries in addition to Pakistan: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and, most recently, Somalia. The military’s Joint Special Operations Command used a drone last week to attack what officials said were two senior members of the Al Shabab militant group on the Somali coast.