US limits Pakistan drone strikes amid political battle over military moves
No drone strikes since 25 December, but lull puts onus on Sharif government to act, as on-off Taliban talks illustrate
Jon Boone in Islamabad
5 February 2014
The US government has agreed to greatly limit attacks by unmanned drones in Pakistan's restless North Waziristan while the country's politicians struggle to reach agreement on whether to send the army to clear out a region almost entirely controlled by militant groups.
There have been no known drone strikes in Pakistan since 25 December, and January was the first full month in two years without any attacks at all, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism,  which closely monitors media reports about drones.
A campaign to assert state control over North Waziristan, home to all manner of al-Qaida linked groups, has been a longstanding demand of the US, which is particularly concerned by the presence of the Haqqani network  -- an Afghan insurgent group capable of highly effective attacks against US troops.
US diplomats have at times had major rows with their CIA colleagues over the havoc drone strikes can play with US foreign policy objectives.
Cameron Munter, the previous US ambassador in Pakistan, left his post in Islamabad early  after furious disagreements with the CIA, which was exclusively focused on counter-terrorism rather than broader US foreign policy goals.
Many observers in Pakistan have noted the recent downturn in drone strikes, which US officials quoted  in the Washington Post confirmed was a deliberate response to requests by prime minister Nawaz Sharif's government.
Security analyst Zahid Hussain said the lull in attacks had helped shift the political debate in Pakistan away from forlorn efforts to engage the Pakistani Taliban, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), in peace talks and towards the sort of military operations against them the US has long pushed Pakistan for.
"It has put more pressure on Pakistan because by not using drones then you have to do something else about it," he said. "And it takes away any further excuse not to act from the Pakistani government and apologists for the Taliban."
The problem was highlighted on 1 November when a drone strike killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the ruthlessly aggressive chief of the TTP.
The interior minister described the killing of a man regarded as public enemy No 1 for his attacks on the Pakistani state as "the murder of all efforts at peace". The leader of an extremist religious party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, described Mehsud as a martyr.
It also energised the campaign of Imran Khan, the charismatic opposition politician strongly opposed to military operations in North Waziristan.
After a US drone attack on a madrasa just outside the tribal areas on 21 November,  Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party launched a blockade against Nato supply convoys travelling into Afghanistan through the Khyber pass.
US restraint is not unlimited, however. It is understood the CIA will still launch attacks if the opportunity to kill a senior target becomes available.
The government's gingerly move towards military operations in North Waziristan has faltered however -- despite the lack of drone strikes.
It had been widely assumed that a surge in deadly militant attacks, particularly on army targets, had led the government to finally back military operations, with senior Pakistani officials confirming as much to western officials.
However, Sharif had a last minute change of mind, announcing last week a four-man committee to try once again to kickstart peace talks.
An initial meeting between the government team and intermediaries who had agreed to represent the TTP was cancelled on Tuesday at the last minute. 
There is little agreement on what exactly triggered Sharif's sudden decision to give peace talks another try, with analysts suggesting an ongoing fear of political attacks by Khan, deep concern over deadly retaliation by the TTP in the cities of Punjab and the dragging on of the trial of former dictator Pervez Musharraf, which has raised tension between Pakistan's politicians and generals.
"There is still reluctance because Sharif's entire policy is to somehow protect Punjab province," Hussain said. "It cannot work, however. They can postpone the inevitable but for not very long."
It is not the first time the US has reined in the drones. There was a six-week hiatus in 2011 following the accidental killing by US aircraft of 24 Pakistani troops near the Afghan border.
In the early days Pakistan enjoyed a veto over drone strikes, although that changed in mid-2008 when President George Bush became fed up with being unable to attack militants responsible for the death of US troops in Afghanistan.
A dramatic rise in drone strikes continued and increased under Barack Obama, although they have fallen off again in the past 18 months.
In a rare speech  on drone policy last May, Barack Obama hinted US strikes in Pakistan would tail off over the long-term as US troops would require less "force protection" provided by drones as they withdraw from Afghanistan.
Pakistan denies it has any involvement in the drone programme, regularly lodging formal complaints when strikes occur.
But US officials familiar with the programme say the strikes would be impossible without some level of Pakistani consent.
Some senior officials in Pakistan regard them as a necessary evil but rarely say so in public.
Last month Rana Sanaullah, one of Sharif's closest aides, told the Guardian that "drone attacks damage the terrorists, very much." 
"Inside, everyone believes that drone attacks are good; but outside, everyone condemns because the drones are American."