White House backpedals on Kerry's pledge to end drone strikes in Pakistan

The Obama administration was forced into damage control on Thursday as officials attempted to walk back Secretary of State John Kerry's pledge to end armed drone operations in Pakistan.

During a diplomatic visit to Pakistan on Thursday, Kerry told Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that Washington plans to severely curtail and eventually end armed drone operations in the country. 

The move was geared toward an overall effort by the Obama administration to forge "a real partnership" between the White House and Islamabad, Kerry told reporters after his meeting with Sharif. 

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"I think the [drone] program will end as we have eliminated most of the threat and continue to eliminate it," Kerry said in an interview with Pakistani television. 

"I think the president has a very real timeline and we hope it's going to be very, very soon," the former Massachusetts senator added. 

The Obama administration reacted quickly to Kerry's comments, saying his statements did not reflect a coming change in the use of armed drones against terrorist targets or overall U.S. counterterrorism policy. 

"Clearly the goal of counter-terrorism operations, broadly speaking, is to get to a place where we don't have to use them, because the threat goes away," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Thursday. 

However, she made clear that there was no plan to eliminate the drone program in the near future, or that the White House had a plan to phase out drone operations. 

The Obama administration is "realistic about the fact that there is a threat that remains and that we have to keep up our vigilance to fight in this and other places around the world." 

"As we make ... progress [against al Qaeda]  the need to use these tools will, of course, be reduced," she added. 

U.S. drone strikes against suspected terrorist targets inside Pakistan has long been a source of contention in the often tense relations between Washington and Islamabad. 

Pakistan claims the strikes, focused on the volatile provinces in the northwest part of the country that border Afghanistan, are a clear violation of the country's sovereignty. 

U.S. military and intelligence officials maintain the drone strikes have been an invaluable tool in decimating the core leadership of al Qaeda and other extremist groups based inside Pakistan. 

Those tensions came to a head in May 2011, when a U.S. special operations team secretly entered Pakistan and killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. 

The infamous terrorist leader had been quietly living in the Pakistani city of Abottabad, only miles from Islamabad. 

During a major national security speech in May, President Obama announced plans to transition control of armed drone strikes to the Pentagon. 

Under the White House's plan, the CIA will continue to supply targeting and other intelligence on possible targets, but operational control over the actual drone strikes would fall to the military. 

Currently, the Pentagon and CIA coordinate and execute their own independent armed drone operations in various hot spots across the globe. 

That shift was part of an overall effort by the White House to update U.S. counterterrorism strategy from the days directly after the 9/11 attacks.

But since Obama's speech in May, efforts to shift control of armed drone operations to the Department of Defense have stalled at the Pentagon and at CIA headquarters in Langley.