ISLAMABAD Pakistan's air force is fully capable of stopping missile strikes by pilotless U.S. drones but it is up to the government to decide whether to do that, the air force chief said on Tuesday.
U.S. forces in Afghanistan have carried out at least 26 air strikes by unmanned aircraft on militant targets in northwest Pakistan this year, according to a Reuters tally, more than half since the start of September.
Pakistan supports the U.S.-led campaign against militancy but does not allow foreign troops or strikes inside its territory. It says the attacks violate its sovereignty and undermine efforts to deal with militancy by inflaming public anger.
The attacks put pressure on the civilian government to stand up to the United States and opposition parties have been critical of the government's failure to stop the strikes.
Air force chief Air Marshal Tanvir Mahmood Ahmed said it was up to the government to decide whether to stop such strikes through diplomatic and political means or by force.
"The air force is ready for any type of air defense," Ahmed told reporters, referring to various types of unmanned aircraft.
"First this nation, you people, our parliament, our government, has to debate how we have to engage the foreign UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). Whether we have to engage them diplomatically and politically to resolve it or engage them militarily," he said.
Many al Qaeda members and Taliban fled to Pakistan's lawless ethnic Pashtun tribal belt after U.S. soldiers and Afghan allies ousted the Taliban government in Afghanistan in late 2001.
The militants entrenched themselves in remote border enclaves from where they have been orchestrating increasingly deadly insurgencies in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Apparently frustrated by Pakistan's inability to tackle the militants, and alarmed by deteriorating Afghan security, the United States is hitting the militants with its drones.
Pakistan has complained to the United States over the strikes but it has shrugged off the protests.
The Washington Post this month cited unidentified Pakistani and U.S. officials as saying the two countries agreed in September on a "don't-ask-don't-tell" policy that allows the attacks.
Under the deal, the Post said the U.S. government would decline to acknowledge the strikes while Pakistan would complain about them. The Pakistani government said there was no such agreement.
(Editing by Robert Birsel)