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US to continue drone programme in Pakistan 'as is' for now

June 11, 2011 - Washington

The White House National Security Council has decided to continue US drone attacks in Pakistan 'as is' for now, following a debate on the slowdown in the drone campaign, according to a US official.

The debate over the drone programme comes as the two sides try to repair relations badly frayed by the Raymond Davis case, unmanned missile strikes in Pakistan's militant-infested tribal region, disagreements over the war in neighbouring Afghanistan and the clandestine US raid that killed Osama bin Laden on May 2.

At the meeting, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Leon Panetta made the case for maintaining the current programme, arguing that it remains the US' best weapon against Al-Qaeda and its allies, The Wall Street Journal quoted the US official, as saying.

According to the official, the result of the meeting- the first high-level debate within the Obama administration over how aggressively to pursue the CIA's targeted-killing program- was a decision to continue the program as is for now.

Another official, who supports a slowdown, said that the discussions about revamping the program would continue alongside talks with Pakistan, which is lobbying to rein in the drone strikes.

Most US officials, including those urging a slowdown, agree that the CIA drone strikes have been one of Washington's most effective tools in the fight against militants hiding out in Pakistan, the report said.

No one in the administration is advocating an outright halt to the program, it added, noting that the drones have killed some top al Qaeda and Taliban leaders and left militants off balance in a swath of mountainous territory along the Afghan border with Pakistan, where they once operated with near impunity.

Yet, an increasingly prominent group of State Department and military officials now argue behind closed doors that the intense pace of the strikes aggravates an already troubled alliance with Pakistan and ultimately, risks destabilizing the nuclear-armed country, said current and former officials familiar with the discussions.

Defenders of the current drone program take umbrage at the suggestion that the program isn't judicious, the report said. "In this context, the phrase 'more judicious' is really code for 'let's appease Pakistani sensitivities,' " said a US official.

The CIA has already given Pakistani concerns greater weight in targeting decisions in recent months, the official added. Advocates of sustained strikes also argue that the current rift with the Pakistanis is not going to be fixed by scaling back the program.

The debate has largely been muted until now, in part because the details of the program are classified and because drone strikes against militants have generally been popular with the White House and most Republicans and Democrats in Congress, the report said.

National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to discuss the covert program or any internal debate over its future.

"The president has issued a clear directive to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda, and the United States government is completely united behind that goal. I think the results speak for themselves," Vietor said.


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