US drone attacks on Al Qaeda to continue: Panetta
NEW DELHI PENTAGON chief Leon Panetta said on Wednesday that the US would continue to launch drone attacks against Al Qaeda in Pakistan despite complaints from Islamabad that the strikes violate its sovereignty.
“We have made it very clear that we are going to continue to defend ourselves,” Defence Secretary Panetta said in India a day after the US announced the killing of Al Qaeda’s number two Abu Yahya al Libi.
“This is about our sovereignty as well,” Panetta added, arguing that Al Qaeda militants who orchestrated the September 11 attacks on the United States were in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
“The leadership of those who were involved in planning this attack are located in Pakistan, in the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas),” he said.
Panetta confirmed the strike on “another deputy leader” of the terror group, referring to Libi who once escaped from a US jail in Afghanistan and had escaped previous assassination attempts.
The former CIA chief, who oversaw an expansion in the drone progamme during his stint as head of the spy agency, said the United States had made clear to Islamabad that the US would go after Al Qaeda “and we have done just that”.
“We have gone after their leadership and we have done it effectively,” he said.
A trusted lieutenant of Osama bin Laden, Libi appeared in countless Al Qaeda videos and was considered the chief architect of its global propaganda machine.
Pakistan has lodged a protest with Washington over a recent uptick in drone attacks on its northwestern tribal areas which it has branded as “unlawful, against international law and a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty”.
But Panetta said that Al Qaeda militants pose a danger to Pakistan as well as the United States.
“And very frankly, the terrorists who threaten the United States, threaten Pakistan as well,” he said.
Pakistani-US relations went into free fall last year when a CIA contractor shot dead two Pakistanis, an American raid killed bin Laden, and US air strikes in November killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
After the November air strikes, Pakistan shut its border to Afghanistan used to transport supplies to NATO troops there and ordered US staff out of an air base reportedly used as a hub for drones.
In March, Pakistan’s parliament agreed to reset US relations on condition that Washington apologise for the troops’ deaths and end drone attacks on its soil.
The United States has so far refused to apologise for the air strikes that killed the Pakistani troops and Panetta acknowledged Wednesday that US officials were still negotiating to try to persuade Islamabad to lift the blockade on the NATO supply convoys.
Panetta acknowledged on Wednesday that India and the United States had “often deep” differences with Pakistan but said New Delhi and Washington needed to work to overcome them.
“Pakistan is a complicated relationship for both of our countries but one that we must work to improve,” he said in a speech at a thinktank.
“India and the United States will need to continue to engage Pakistan, overcoming our respective — and often deep — differences with Pakistan to make all of South Asia peaceful and prosperous,” he added.