ISLAMABAD: President Barack Obama’s speech on the use of drones and the fate of Guantanamo prisoners was largely welcomed Friday in two key countries affected by the policies – Pakistan and Yemen.
But Pakistani officials criticized the president for not ending drone strikes in the country altogether, as they have long demanded.
Obama cast drone strikes against Islamic militants as crucial to U.S. counterterrorism efforts but acknowledged in his landmark speech Thursday that they are not a “cure-all.”
The president also said he is deeply troubled by civilians unintentionally killed in the strikes and announced more restrictive rules governing the attacks – measures that his advisers said would effectively limit drone use in the future.
Obama implored Congress to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba, and tried to jump-start the process by announcing a fresh push to transfer approved detainees to their home countries and lifting a ban on transfers to Yemen. The end of Yemeni restrictions is key, given that 30 of the 56 prisoners eligible for transfer are Yemeni.
Pakistanis were much more focused on Obama’s comments about drone strikes since the country has been hit by 355 such attacks since 2004. The strikes have killed up to 3,336 people, according to the New America Foundation, a U.S.-based think tank.
It was the first time the president has spoken so extensively in public about the drone program, which is conducted by the CIA in Pakistan and considered classified. Drone strikes in other countries are carried out by the military alone or in cooperation with the CIA, as in Yemen.
The strikes are extremely unpopular in Pakistan, partly because of reports by government officials that the attacks regularly kill innocent civilians – an assessment the U.S. has called exaggerated. Pakistani officials also regularly criticize the strikes as a violation of Pakistani sovereignty. Senior civilian and military officials are known to have supported at least some of the attacks in the past, but claim that is no longer the case.
Obama said in his speech there was a wide gap between U.S. assessments of civilian casualties from drone strikes and those produced by non-governmental organizations. But he acknowledged civilian deaths have occurred and said they will haunt him and those in his chain of command “as long as we live.”
“Obama has finally responded to the popular sentiment in this country, which is fiercely against the drones, and I think that shows certain sensitivity,” said Mushahid Hussain, chairman of the defense committee in Pakistan’s Senate. “But for the people of Pakistan that is not good enough unless there is a cessation of drone attacks.”
Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry reiterated this point in a statement sent to reporters: “The government of Pakistan has consistently maintained that the drone strikes are counterproductive, entail loss of innocent lives, have human rights and humanitarian implications and violate the principles of national sovereignty, territorial integrity and international law.”
But it also praised Obama for mentioning the thousands of Pakistani soldiers who have lost their lives fighting extremists and for acknowledging that force alone will not make the U.S. safer.
“This also has been Pakistan’s longstanding stance that a comprehensive strategy was acquired to address the root causes that foster terrorism and extremism,” the ministry stressed.
Even though Obama defended the use of drones, Pakistani officials and analysts thought his comments and new guidelines governing the attacks could create space for improving strained relations between the two countries, as a new government is set to take power in Pakistan.
“I think it puts the new government in a better position,” said Imtiaz Gul, head of the Islamabad-based Center for Research and Security Studies.
“The expectation will be that even if a strike happens, it will be a lot more carefully examined before the execution and will be more in coordination with Pakistani forces.”
According to an unclassified summary of the guidelines, the U.S. will not strike if a target can be captured, either by the U.S. or a foreign government; a strike can be launched only against a target posing an “imminent” threat, and the U.S. has a preference for military control of the drone program, although the CIA will continue to control the attacks in Pakistan.
Drone strikes are somewhat less controversial in Yemen, where the attacks are carried out in close coordination with the government in Sanaa.
A Yemeni intelligence official said the strikes have helped weaken Al-Qaeda and thwarted plans to kidnap diplomats and foreigners. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.