ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The United States has halted drone attacks on militants along Pakistan's western border in a development analysts believe is linked to U.S. attempts to secure the release of a jailed U.S. consular employee.
After months of frequent strikes from unmanned U.S. aircraft on militant hideouts in tribal areas on Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, where bloodshed has hit record levels, reports of covert strikes have gone quiet for over three weeks.
Many analysts believe Washington has stopped the attacks to avoid further inflaming anti-American fury in Pakistan just as it pressures a vulnerable Islamabad government to release Raymond Davis, a U.S. consulate employee imprisoned after shooting two Pakistanis last month during what he said was an attempted robbery.
"This in itself raises a number of questions regarding the U.S. Pakistan strategy as it struggles to balance counter terrorism ... with its public diplomacy," said Simbal Khan, an analyst with the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad.
The decision to halt a campaign that is the centerpiece of U.S. efforts to root out militants launching attacks on its soldiers in Afghanistan also raises questions, Khan said, "about how chasing after terrorist and al Qaeda targets can be suspended to save the fate of a single U.S. national."
As tempers fray over Davis, who the United States insist is shielded by diplomatic immunity, the government of President Asif Ali Zardari is loathe to risk losing billions of dollars in U.S. aid or doing permanent damage to ties with a key Western ally.
Yet neither can Pakistan afford to unleash popular fury in a case that has galvanized anti-American sentiment.
The strikes have already fueled anger against the government among those who see the attacks as a violation of Pakistani sovereignty and blame them for the death of innocent civilians. Local leaders are often the ones seen at fault.
"It's possible that Washington thinks it shouldn't give the Pakistani public yet another reason to whip up anti-American sentiment even as the Davis case is being dealt with," said Samina Ahmed, South Asia project director for the International Crisis Group.
According to the Long War Journal, a leading military blog, the current pause in drone strikes is one of the longest since the United States intensified its drone campaign in 2008.
The United States and Pakistan do not publicly acknowledge the drone campaign in Pakistan's tribal areas, remote and mostly off-limits to journalists, but reports of the strikes filter out through local media and anonymous intelligence reports.
The New America Foundation, which tracks the strikes, estimated they have killed some 2,189 people from 2004 through January of this year. Of those, 1,754 were reportedly militants.
The last reported strike was January 23, when intelligence officials said a U.S. drone aircraft fired two missiles targeting a vehicle and a house in the North Waziristan tribal region on the Afghan border, killing at least four militants.
Another missile shortly afterward was reported to kill two militants on a motorbike.
While the drone strikes have killed al Qaeda and Taliban figures, some question their success when many senior militants are living in cities like Quetta or Karachi that Pakistan has made off-limits to strikes.
Yet they are now a key part of the U.S.-Pakistan security alliance, forged in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks but long frayed by U.S. complaints that Pakistan has not done enough against militants that don't directly threaten the government.
Muhammad Amir Rana, director of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, said the drone strikes were becoming counterproductive because they were breeding more opponents of the state.
The shooting in a city known as the heart of Pakistan appears to have galvanized Pakistanis in a way that the drone attacks, in remote areas invisible to most Pakistanis, have not.
On Friday, protestors in Lahore and other cities demanded Davis be tried in Pakistan, some of them burning tires and U.S. flags a day after the Lahore High Court pushed off a hearing on Davis' fate until March 14.
Editing by Chris Allbritton and Andrew Marshall