WASHINGTON - The Pakistani military's recent demands on the United States to curb drone strikes and reduce the number of U.S. spies operating in Pakistan, which have raised tensions between the two countries to a new high, were a response to U.S. military and intelligence programmes that had gone well beyond what the Pakistanis had agreed to in past years.
The military leadership had reached private agreements in the past on both the drone strikes and on U.S. intelligence activities in Pakistan, but both had changed dramatically in ways that threatened the interests of Pakistan.
The Pakistani military, which holds real power over matters of national security in Pakistan, is now insisting for the first time that Washington must observe strict limits on both the use of drone strikes and on the number of U.S. military and intelligence personnel and contractors in the country.
And they have backed up that demand with a suspension of joint intelligence operations with the United States – a programme that had been strongly sought after by the Barack Obama administration.
The new Pakistani demands for restrictions on U.S. operations are being taken seriously by the United States, because it was Pakistan's Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, who communicated them to U.S. officials, as reported by the New York Times Monday.
The detention of U.S. contract spy Raymond Davis for killing three Pakistani citizens in January was a turning point in U.S.-Pakistani relations. But it was only the occasion for the Pakistani military leadership and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to take a much stronger position on larger issues that concerned them, according to Kamran Bokhari, a specialist on Pakistan for the consulting firm STRATFOR.
"What we're seeing is ISI and the Pakistani state take advantage of the Davis affair to renegotiate the rules of the game with the United States," Bokhari told IPS in an interview.
The first move by the Pakistani military and ISI after Davis was detained was to suspend joint intelligence operations between ISI and the CIA, which had been successful in capturing a number of high-ranking Taliban leaders in early 2010.
That suspension was kept quiet for months by both sides until it was leaked by a ranking ISI official to Reuters last weekend. It was understood by U.S. officials as a bid by the Pakistanis to force serious changes in U.S. covert activities on Pakistani soil.
But Pakistan's tough line on Davis and on the joint intelligence operations clearly got the attention of the Obama administration. U.S. drone strikes were suspended in January and February while U.S. officials sought to resolve both issues.
During the Musharraf administration, the Pakistani military had reached a private understanding with the George W. Bush administration on the use of drones against al Qaeda and its Pakistani allies.
But military and intelligence officials had watched with growing concern as the drone programme shifted from targeting high level al Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban officials to the rank and file members and supporters of either Afghan or Pakistani Taliban organisations.
Pakistani officials had privately sought to convince the Obama administration to narrow its targeting. Senior Pakistani officials had complained that the CIA was increasingly killing "mere foot soldiers", as reported in a Feb. 21 story by The Washington Post's Greg Miller.
Within hours after Davis was released, however, the drone strikes resumed, as if to make the point that the U.S. had no intention of altering its strategy of reliance on the drones.
Then on Mar. 17, a drone strike on a gathering in North Waziristan killed more than 40 people, including some Taliban members but mostly tribal elders and members of the local government militia force. The tribesmen and elders were meeting in a jirga to discuss the issue of payment for the sale of a chromite mine by the Madda Khel tribe, according to local officials.
One tribal elder who lost four relatives in the bombing said 44 people were killed, including 13 children.
The Pakistani military could hardly be insensitive to the fact that tribal leaders across the North Waziristan region were calling for revenge against the United States after the Mar. 17 bloodbath. "We are a people who wait 100 years to exact revenge. We never forgive our enemy," the elders said in a statement issued immediately after the bombing.
It also outraged public opinion all across Pakistan, where the drone war has created growing anger at the United States.
Kayani himself issued a strong statement condemning that strike as "intolerable" and said it made it more difficult for the military to fight terrorism. Pakistani officials had long been saying both publicly and privately that the programme had become "counterproductive", but it was the first time Kayani himself had weighed in.
In the past, Pakistani military and government complaints about drone strikes were "hypocritical", said Anatol Lieven, a specialist at Kings College, Cambridge, and the author of a new book on Pakistan.
But Lieven told IPS the Pakistani military leadership appears to have been "seriously annoyed" by that March drone strike and its large number of civilian casualties, because "it was such a public insult".
"The Pakistanis are in a deeply humiliating position" in regard to the drone strikes, said Lieven. He said the military leadership no longer trusts the Americans' judgment on the programme, in part because the strikes are killing people in North Waziristan who are willing to make a deal to end their fight against the Pakistani military and government.
The Pakistani military's demand beginning after the Davis arrest that the United States reduce the number of CIA and Special Operations Forces personnel in Pakistan by 25 to 40 percent, as reported by the New York Times Monday, was a response to a dramatic increase in the number of such personnel entering the country without explicit agreement from the Pakistani military, according to Lieven.
"What the Pakistanis are demanding is a rollback of a huge influx that has occurred in recent months," Lieven told IPS. "They are for a return to the status quo of last year." They are specifically complaining about more U.S. personnel who had come into the country without explicit permission, said Lieven.
The United States had increased the number of "unilateral" intelligence personnel in Pakistan - those who were not specifically involved in joint intelligence efforts - by at least a few hundred in late 2010 and early 2011.
Lieven said some U.S. officials had privately agreed that the U.S. spying in Pakistan "has gotten seriously out of hand".
The Kings College scholar said he has been assured by Pakistani intelligence officials that they are committed to helping prevent any attack against the United States from Pakistani territory, because "the consequences would be disastrous for Pakistan if there were ever an attack."
But that does not apply to the Afghan Taliban presence in Pakistan. "The Pakistanis have been giving very little help on Afghanistan," he said. And that is one reason the U.S. had increased the number of intelligence agents in Pakistan.