ISLAMABAD: Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday that United States (US) drone strikes in Pakistan could end “very soon”, in unusually outspoken remarks welcomed in Islamabad but immediately downplayed by American aides.
It is the first time such a senior member of the US administration has indicated there could be a definitive end to the program, which the Central Intelligence Agency has in the past called an effective counter-terrorism weapon.
But the strikes are a major thorn in often fractious ties between Islamabad and Washington, and are officially condemned by Pakistan as a violation of sovereignty and international law.
Kerry waded into the row at the tail end of a visit to Islamabad, in which he announced that Washington was reviving strategic dialogue with Pakistan for the first time after a series of crises in 2011.
Asked in an interview by a Pakistani television station whether the strikes could end, Kerry said: “I think the program will end as we have eliminated most of the threat and continue to eliminate it.”
Pressed on whether a timeline was envisaged, Kerry replied: “Well, I do. And I think the [US] president has a very real timeline and we hope it’s going to be very, very soon.”
Pakistan’s top diplomat Sartaj Aziz demanded a halt to drone strikes that have already decreased.
But US officials immediately sought to downplay Kerry’s remarks.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that the number of drone strikes had declined owing to the drawdown of American troops from Afghanistan and because of progress in curtailing the Al-Qaeda threat.
“Today the secretary referenced the changes that we expect to take place in that program over the course of time, but there is no exact timeline to provide,” she said in a statement.
Pakistan’s new government led by Nawaz Sharif is likely to seize upon Kerry’s remarks as a coup.
A spokesman for the foreign ministry welcomed Kerry’s remarks, saying it was Islamabad’s long-standing position that they should stop.
On Afghanistan, Kerry said he was confident that Washington and Kabul would reach a long-term security agreement that would allow American troops to remain in the country beyond 2014.
“We’re making progress, we’re working on it. I am personally confident that we will have an agreement,” Kerry said.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai suspended talks on the deal in June, furious that a Taliban liaison office in Qatar appeared to have been opened as an embassy for a government in waiting.
“Let me be clear: the US is drawing down not withdrawing,” Kerry said.