President Barack Obama has reignited the controversy over the CIA’s deployment of drones in Pakistan, admitting their use for the first time and insisting they were “precision strikes” against anti-American targets.
“A lot of these strikes have been in [Pakistan’s tribal areas],” said Mr Obama during an hour-long video interaction on Google’s social network, streamed live on YouTube. “For the most part, they’ve been very precise precision strikes against al-Qa’ida and their affiliates, and we’re very careful in terms of how it’s been applied.”
He added: “This is a targeted focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists, who are trying to go in and harm Americans, hit American facilities, American bases, and so on. For us to be able to get them in another way would involve probably a lot more intrusive military action than the ones we’re already engaging in.”
Washington’s use of drones in Pakistan has long been a source of anger for many Pakistanis. While US officials claim the strikes are an important tool in its arsenal, many in Pakistan say they undermine the country’s sovereignty and often hit innocent civilians. The New America Foundation, a US think-tank, estimates drone strikes in Pakistan have killed between 1,715 and 2,680 people in the past eight years. Last year, the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism said it believed that of those killed, as many as 775 were civilians, including 168 children.
Asked if the drone programme had damaged the US’s relationship with Pakistan, Mr Obama said the leadership in Islamabad lacked either the political will or the capacity to take on extremists. “Our relations have gotten more strained because there are a lot of extremists inside that country,” he added.
The position of Pakistan’s armed forces on drone strikes is not entirely simple. While the strikes are routinely condemned in public, it is clear that there has been cooperation with the US on helping to select targets. In the aftermath of a Nato airstrike last November that
killed 28 Pakistani troops, the drone attacks were suspended. Early last month the strikes were restarted, killing four alleged militants in North Waziristan.
A spokesman for Pakistan’s foreign ministry, told reporters: “Our position on drone strikes is clear and based on principles. Drone attacks are unlawful, counter-productive and hence unacceptable. We cannot condone the violation of our sovereignty.”
Mirza Shahzad Akbar, an Islamabad human rights campaigner who is trying to pursue the US in the courts, said last night: “What Obama has said is no news to us in Pakistan but what we have found is that the US President is either not telling the truth or is too naive when he talks about civilian deaths in drone strikes. It also clear for us with in to the Pakistani government that either they are complacent, or incompetent to protect their citizens.”
Mr Obama was also asked why the US was trying to extradite a British student, Richard O’Dwyer, accused of breaking American copyright law after setting up the no longer functioning TVShack website. The President said he was not personally involved in the case but insisted the US administration wanted to ensure that intellectual property was protected “in a way that’s consistent with internet freedom”.