ISLAMABAD (AP) — President Barack Obama's speech on the use of drones and the fate of Guantanamo prisoners was largely welcomed Friday in two key countries affected by the policies— Pakistan and Yemen.
But Pakistani officials criticized the president for not announcing an end to drone strikes against Islamic militants in the country in his landmark speech Thursday, as they have long demanded.
Obama cast drone strikes as crucial to U.S. counterterrorism efforts but acknowledged that they are not a "cure-all." The president also said he is deeply troubled by civilians unintentionally killed in the strikes and announced more restrictive rules governing the attacks — measures that his advisers said would effectively limit drone use in the future.
On Guantanamo, Obama implored Congress to close the detention center in Cuba, and tried to jumpstart the process by announcing a fresh push to transfer approved detainees to their home countries and lifting a ban on transfers to Yemen. The end of Yemeni restrictions is key, given that 30 of the 56 prisoners eligible for transfer are Yemeni.
An adviser to Yemen's prime minister, Rageh Badi, praised Obama's decision to lift the ban on the return of Yemeni detainees as a "welcome step" that would improve relations between the two countries.
"This is a responsible speech, especially about the closure of the detention center, which has been an insult to the U.S. more than to any other country," said Badi.
Obama's push to close Guantanamo was also welcomed in Pakistan, but the issue has less resonance in the country because there are fairly few Pakistanis left in the prison. Analysts also questioned whether Obama would be successful, given that he promised to close the prison during his first term but failed to do so, largely because of opposition in Congress.
Pakistanis were much more focused on Obama's comments about drone strikes since the country has been hit by 355 such attacks since 2004. The strikes have killed up to 3,336 people, according to the New America Foundation, a U.S.-based think tank.
It was the first time the president has spoken so extensively in public about the drone program, which is conducted by the CIA in Pakistan and considered classified. Drone strikes in other countries are carried out by the military alone or in cooperation with the CIA, as in Yemen.
The strikes are extremely unpopular in Pakistan, partly because of claims by government officials that the attacks regularly kill innocent civilians — an assessment the U.S. has called exaggerated. Pakistani officials also regularly criticize the strikes as a violation of Pakistani sovereignty. Senior civilian and military officials are known to have supported at least some of the attacks in the past, but claim that is no longer the case.
Obama said in his speech that there was a wide gap between U.S. assessments of civilian casualties from drone strikes and those produced by non-governmental organizations. But he acknowledged 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 in a statement sent to reporters.
"The government of Pakistan has consistently maintained that the drone strikes are counter-productive, 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.
But it also praised Obama for mentioning the thousands of Pakistani soldiers who have lost their lives fighting extremists and for acknowledging that force along will not make the U.S. safer.
"This also has been Pakistan's longstanding stance that a comprehensive strategy was acquired to address the root causes that foster terrorism and extremism," the ministry stressed.
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 is set to take power in Pakistan.
"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 also said there must be "near-certainty" that no civilians will be injured or killed in strikes, and they are bound by respect for state sovereignty. Cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistan on attacks in the past has been hampered by pervasive mistrust between the two countries.
The number of strikes in Pakistan has dropped from a peak of over 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. A further decline in the future, as predicted by White House officials, would 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.
Drone strikes are somewhat less controversial in Yemen, where the attacks are carried out in close coordination with the government in Sanaa.
A Yemeni intelligence official said the strikes have helped weaken al-Qaida and thwarted plans to kidnap diplomats and foreigners. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Associated Press writer Ahmed al-Haj contributed to this report from Sanaa, Yemen.