U.S. military, Pakistan carrying out Predator drone missions together

Washington has given Pakistan the freedom to launch airstrikes against militants, but so far the Pakistanis have been reluctant, officials say. The program is a marked shift for both sides.
By Julian E. Barnes and Greg Miller | Los Angeles Times, May 12, 2009

Reporting from Washington — The U.S. military has begun flying armed Predator drones inside Pakistan and has given Pakistani officers significant control over targets, flight routes and decisions to launch attacks under a new joint operation, according to U.S. officials familiar with the program.

The project was begun in recent weeks to bolster Pakistan’s ability and willingness to disrupt the militant groups that are posing a growing threat to the government in Islamabad and fueling violence in Afghanistan.

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For the U.S. military, the missions represent a broad new role in searching for Islamic militants in Pakistan. For years, that task has been the domain of the CIA, which has flown its own fleet of Predators over the South Asian nation.

Under the new partnership, U.S. military drones will be allowed for the first time to venture beyond the borders of Afghanistan under the direction of Pakistani military officials, who are working with American counterparts at a command center in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

U.S. officials said the program was aimed at getting Pakistan — which has frequently protested airstrikes in its territory as a violation of sovereignty — more directly and deeply engaged in the Predator program.

“This is about building trust,” said a senior U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the program has not been publicly acknowledged. “This is about giving them capabilities they do not currently have to help them defeat this radical extreme element that is in their country.”

The Pakistanis, however, have yet to use the drones to shoot at suspected militants and are grappling with a cumbersome military chain of command as well as ambivalence over using U.S. equipment to fire on their own people.

The program marks a significant departure from how the war against Taliban insurgents has been fought for most of the last seven years. The heavy U.S. military presence in Afghanistan has been largely powerless to pursue militants who routinely escape across the border into Pakistan.

But the initiative carries serious risks for Pakistan, which is struggling to balance a desire for more control over the drones with a deep reluctance to become complicit in U.S.-operated Predator strikes on its own people.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, on a visit to Washington last week, reiterated his nation’s request for its own fleet of Predators. U.S. officials have all but ruled that out, and they described the new, jointly operated flights as an effective compromise.

Pakistani officials did not deny the existence of the new program, saying Tuesday that they were working with U.S. officials to better utilize the American technology. In a statement, Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, said the nation remained concerned that the “unilateral” CIA drone strikes violated its sovereignty.

“Pakistan has not been averse to using every available means in tracking down Al Qaeda and other terrorists,” Haqqani said. “We have been working with the U.S. side to find ways in which the U.S. technological advantage matches up with our desire to uphold our sovereignty within our borders.”

CIA Predators flown covertly in Pakistan continue to focus on the United States’ principal target, Al Qaeda. The military drones, meanwhile, are intended to undermine the militant networks that have moved closer to Islamabad, the capital, in recent weeks.

Over the last month, officials said, the United States has offered Pakistan control over multiple flights involving both Predator and more heavily armed Reaper drones.

Pakistan declined an offer to use the drones for its recent military offensives in the Swat Valley and Buner areas, and poor weather has caused other sorties to be scrapped. But the senior U.S. military official said at least two missions had been flown in recent weeks under Pakistani direction.

So far the missions have not involved the firing of any missiles, and some U.S. officials have expressed frustration that the Pakistanis have not used the Predator capabilities more aggressively. Officials said Pakistan was given the authority to order strikes during the jointly operated flights as long as there was U.S. agreement on the targets.

“It is their decision,” a senior military officer said. “We are trying to put them in the chain, so they control the whole thing, save the hardware.”

The program may be one result of U.S. military efforts to cultivate closer ties with Pakistan. Over the last year, Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has made repeated trips to Islamabad to push for greater Pakistani cooperation.

The program also is part of a broader overhaul of the U.S. military approach in the region. Army Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, named this week to become the new top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, expanded the use of Predators while in Iraq and is expected to do the same in his new post.

The missions are being controlled from the jointly operated command center in Jalalabad. The center contains a “fusion cell” that merges information gathered from American surveillance with human intelligence collected by Pakistani and Afghanistan forces.

Debates between Pakistanis and Americans have taken place within the center over whether potential targets are Taliban leaders or Pakistani tribesmen with only loose ties to extremist groups. Nonetheless, U.S. officials said most Pakistani officers in the command center understood the militant threat and were anxious to move aggressively.

However, the Pakistanis’ superiors have had more reservations and have equivocated when asked for permission to fire on suspected militants. U.S. officers said those Pakistani officials may not have understood that any delay could allow targeted individuals to slip away.

In response, Pakistanis have repeatedly emphasized to U.S. military officers that they are reluctant to fire missiles at their own citizens.

“They have asked us to try and understand what it is like to be a military that is now required to go against its own people,” said the senior military officer. “I do not think we always have the right perspective of how difficult it is.”

The Pakistani reluctance may also reflect ambivalence in Islamabad over the CIA’s Predator program. The intelligence agency is in the midst of a campaign of strikes on Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan’s tribal frontier.

The most recent CIA strike came Tuesday, reportedly killing eight people in the South Waziristan region of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas Since August, the agency has carried out at least 55 strikes, compared with 10 reported attacks in 2006 and 2007 combined.

Despite Pakistan’s frequent complaints about the strikes, U.S. officials have said the missions are authorized by the Pakistani government. CIA officials credit Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, with providing on-the-ground information that often leads to Predator strikes. In turn, the CIA has shared sensitive imagery and intercepts with Pakistani counterparts.

Despite that arrangement, U.S. officials avoided offering Pakistan greater control over the CIA drones, in part because of concerns about giving Pakistan direct access to a sensitive and secret intelligence operation. At times, U.S. intelligence officials have voiced suspicions that elements of the ISI, which has long-standing relationships with Taliban leaders, have warned targets in advance of U.S. strikes.

U.S. officials also cited a reluctance to take CIA drones away from their efforts to track and kill senior Al Qaeda figures, and stressed that the military drones would pursue a different set of targets, mainly Taliban-linked fighters.

The use of Defense Department drones presents disadvantages to Pakistan. The military’s unmanned aircraft program, for example, is not shrouded in the same level of secrecy as the CIA’s, eroding Pakistan’s already attenuated ability to continue to deny involvement.

“If it’s true that Pakistan is actually controlling some of these drones, that undermines the concerns [they express] about the attacks,” said Seth Jones, a counter-terrorism expert at Rand Corp. who frequently travels to the region.

Pakistan’s permission is crucial to Predator operations, representing an added incentive for U.S. officials to share control of the aircraft.

“The key is you’ve got to have the approval of the host government,” said Scott Silliman, a former Air Force lawyer who is now a law professor at Duke University. “If you do not, you cross over the line of invading the territorial sovereignty of another country.”



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