President Barack Obama has confirmed for the first time that US drones have targeted Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants on Pakistani soil, a program that has escalated under his administration.
The government in Islamabad, whose relations with Washington sank to an all-time low last year, appeared to shrug off the confirmation but made a rare public acknowledgement that the program had “tactical advantages”.
Asked about drones in a chat with web users on Google+ and YouTube, Obama said “a lot of these strikes have been in the FATA” — Pakistan’s semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the Afghan border.
US officials say Pakistan’s tribal belt provides sanctuary to Taliban fighting in Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda groups plotting attacks on the West, Pakistani Taliban who routinely bomb Pakistan and other foreign fighters.
According to an AFP tally, 45 US missile strikes were reported in Pakistan’s tribal belt in 2009, 101 in 2010 and 64 in 2011.
The New America Foundation think tank in Washington says drone strikes in Pakistan have killed between 1,715 and 2,680 people in the past eight years.
Relations between the United States and Pakistan deteriorated sharply in 2011, over the covert American raid that killed Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in May and US air strikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November.
Islamabad is now reviewing its entire alliance with the United States and has kept its Afghan border closed to NATO supply convoys since November 26.