ISLAMABAD — President Barack Obama's decision to impose more restrictive rules governing U.S. drone strikes and his prediction that they will be used less could pave the way for better relations with the new government of key ally Pakistan, officials and analysts said Friday.
Obama fell short of Pakistani demands to announce an end to the attacks, but his landmark speech Thursday was seen as addressing some of Islamabad's main concerns over the covert CIA drone program targeting militants in the country's northwest tribal region along the Afghan border.
The strikes are extremely unpopular in Pakistan because they are widely believed to regularly kill large numbers of civilians – a claim the U.S. says is exaggerated. The Pakistani government also criticizes the attacks as a violation of its sovereignty. Senior civilian and military officials are known to have supported at least some of the past strikes in secret but claim that is no longer the case.
Obama cast the drone strikes as crucial to U.S. counterterrorism efforts and said they have decimated al-Qaida's core leadership in Pakistan's tribal region. But he acknowledged that they are not a "cure-all" and would likely decline as the U.S. withdrew its combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
The president said there was a wide gap between U.S. assessments of civilian casualties from drone strikes and those counts produced by non-governmental organizations. But he admitted that civilian deaths have occurred and said they will haunt him and those in his chain of command "as long as we live."
"Obama has finally responded to the popular sentiment in this country, which is fiercely against the drones, and I think that shows a certain sensitivity," said Mushahid Hussain, chairman of the defense committee in Pakistan's Senate. "But for the people of Pakistan, that is not good enough unless there is a cessation of drone attacks."
Pakistan's Foreign Ministry reiterated this point.
"The government of Pakistan has consistently maintained that the drone strikes are counterproductive, entail loss of innocent lives, have human rights and humanitarian implications and violate the principles of national sovereignty, territorial integrity and international law," the ministry said in a statement.
But it also praised Obama for mentioning the thousands of Pakistani soldiers who have lost their lives fighting extremists and for acknowledging that force alone will not make the U.S. safer.
"This also has been Pakistan's longstanding stance that a comprehensive strategy was required to address the root causes that foster terrorism and extremism," the ministry said.
Even though Obama defended the use of drones, Pakistani officials and analysts thought his comments and new guidelines governing the attacks could create space for improving strained relations between the two countries, as a new government led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is set to take power in the coming days.
"I think it puts the new government in a better position," said Imtiaz Gul, head of the Islamabad-based Center for Research and Security Studies. "The expectation will be that even if a strike happens, it will be a lot more carefully examined before the execution and will be more in coordination with Pakistani forces."
According to an unclassified summary of the new guidelines, the U.S. will not strike if a target can be captured, either by the U.S. or a foreign government; a strike can be launched only against a target posing an "imminent" threat; and the U.S. has a preference for military control of the drone program, although the CIA will continue to control the attacks in Pakistan. Obama's advisers said the guidelines would effectively limit the number of drone strikes in terror zones.
Obama also said they are bound by respect for state sovereignty. Pakistani officials and analysts said the two countries needed to figure out a way to cooperate more closely on the strikes and put the Pakistani government in the lead – a move Washington has resisted.
Cooperation on attacks has been hampered by pervasive mistrust between the two countries. This mistrust has been driven in large part by U.S. suspicions of links between the Pakistani government and Islamic militants, which Islamabad denies.
The relationship has also been rattled by a series of dramatic events, such as the unilateral U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani army town in 2011.
On Friday, a U.S. diplomat accidentally killed a pedestrian while driving in Islamabad, but the incident didn't seem to be making waves.
Obama said in his speech there must be "near-certainty" that no civilians will be injured or killed in drone strikes going forward.
Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer who has filed many court cases on behalf of drone victims' families, said he appreciated Obama's concern about civilian casualties. But Akbar said he was not confident the new guidelines would change the CIA's behavior because the attacks would still be shrouded in secrecy.
"The problem remains the same because there is no transparency and accountability for the CIA because it will remain inside the system and not be visible to outsiders," he said.
The number of strikes in Pakistan has dropped from a peak of more than 120 in 2010 to around a dozen so far this year, although it's unclear whether the decline is being driven by decisions about targeting or the political sensitivity of carrying out attacks. An additional decline could further help Pakistan-U.S. relations.
"In implying that the drone surge is coming to an end in this region, as al-Qaida has all but been neutralized, this opens space for more meaningful efforts to come to an agreement between the U.S. and Pakistan," said Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S.
Associated Press writer Lara Jakes contributed to this report from Washington.