By Phil Stewart
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The United States will not abandon its drone program in Pakistan but how it goes forward is a matter for U.S. and Pakistani intelligence and military officials to determine, a U.S. official said on Wednesday.
"The program is something that we have said we go ahead on. The question is how. And that process is going to be something that's going to be one of the main tasks that our intel and our military guys have," the official said, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity.
The comments came as Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Pakistan in the highest level trip by a U.S. official since ties were badly strained over the case of CIA contractor Raymond Davis, who shot dead two Pakistanis in Lahore on January 27.
A Pakistani court acquitted Davis of murder charges last month after a deal that involved the payment of compensation, or "blood money," to the families of two men that he killed. Davis said the men were trying to rob him.
In the wake of the incident, some Pakistani officials have called for sharp cuts in drone attacks, an issue that was raised in talks last week in Washington between CIA Director Leon Panetta and Lieutenant-General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, chief of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
"I'll pause from my normal optimism and say this is a tough one. This is a real tough one," the official said.
"Because that has been so inflamed in the public that the ability of our intelligence and our military guys to get together and say 'what's our common ground here?' is limited."
U.S. officials have privately said in the past that Washington would not consider demands by some Pakistani officials for sharp cuts in drone attacks or suggestions the United States should return to a Bush-era policy limiting the strikes to "high-value" militant targets.
Some observers say Pakistan's recent vitriol about CIA activities may be largely posturing -- a ploy to possibly extract more financial and military aid from the United States. But the issue of drones remains a sore point.
(Editing by Chris Allbritton and Mark Heinrich)