Leon Panetta, in his first visit to New Delhi as America’s secretary for defence, flatly declared that the United States would continue drone strikes against terrorist targets in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), even if Islamabad believed its sovereignty was being violated. The strikes were justified, said Panetta, because the terrorists who killed 3,000 Americans on 9/11 continued to take refuge in FATA.
The statement is significant, given that President Barack Obama faces attack at home over the legal rationale for drone attacks on Pakistani soil. A Republican Congressman, Dennis Kucinich, is leading a growing movement that questions the administration on the legal basis for striking targets in a country that the US is not at war with. The Pakistani media is prominently covering this letter campaign.
Today, addressing an audience of strategic thinkers at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, Panetta laid out the administration’s case in detail. “With regard to drones… this is about our sovereignty as well. Because there were a group of individuals who attacked the United States on 9/11 and killed 3,000 of our citizens. We went to war against those who attacked the United States of America. The leadership of those that were involved in planning those attacks located (themselves) in Pakistan in the FATA. We have made clear to the Pakistanis that the United States of America is going to defend ourselves against those that would attack us. And we have done just that. We have gone after their leadership and we have done that effectively, targeting Al Qaeda leadership and terrorists.”
Panetta went on: “The terrorists who threaten the United States threaten Pakistan as well. This is not just about protecting the United States; it is also about protecting Pakistan. And, we have made very clear that we are going to continue to defend ourselves.”
Panetta made common cause with India on the need to stabilise Pakistan. “We can’t have a stable Afghanistan without a stable Pakistan,” he said. “India views the relationship with Pakistan as complicated and so do we. And it is… but at the same time, it is a necessary relationship… it is not easy, but it is necessary.
In contrast to the hard line against Pakistan, Panetta described India as central to America’s new posture in the Asia Pacific. “America is at a turning point. After a decade of war, we are developing a new defence strategy --- a central feature of which is a “rebalancing” towards the Asia-Pacific region. In particular, we will expand our military partnerships and our presence in the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia.”
“Defence cooperation with India is a linchpin in this strategy. India is one of the largest and most dynamic countries in the region and the world, with one of the most capable militaries. India also shares with the United States a strong commitment to a set of principles that help maintain international security and prosperity.”
During his two-day visit to New Delhi, Panetta met the prime minister, the national security advisor, and held delegation meetings with his counterpart, Defence Minister A K Antony. Panetta says the two sides discussed America’s new focus on the Asia-Pacific; the transition in Afghanistan and the need for India to continue supporting the government in Kabul; the India-Pakistan peace dialogue; and issues like piracy, terrorism, Iran and North Korea.