Thursday, May 14, 2009
WASHINGTON — The United States military for the first time has provided Pakistan with a broad array of surveillance information collected by American drones flying along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, American military officials said Wednesday.
But it is not clear whether the cooperation will continue. While American military drones flew a handful of noncombat surveillance missions along the border earlier this spring at the request of the Pakistani government, requests for additional flights abruptly stopped without explanation, the officials said.
The offer to give Pakistan a much larger amount of imagery, including real-time video feeds and communications intercepts gleaned by remotely piloted aircraft, was intended to help defuse a growing dispute over how to use the drones and which country should control the secret missions flown in Pakistani airspace, American officials said.
In meetings last week with President Obama and other American officials in Washington, Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan’s president, repeated his insistence that Pakistan be given its own armed Predator drones to attack operatives of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the country’s tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. But the American intelligence operatives who fly the armed drones inside Pakistan remain opposed to joint operations with Pakistani intelligence services, pointing out that past attempts were a failure. Several years ago, American officials gave Pakistan advance word of planned Predator attacks, but stopped the practice after the information leaked to militants.
“We’re going after terrorists plotting directly against the United States and its interests,” said one American counterterrorism official. “Nobody wants to gamble with those kinds of targets. We tried a joint approach before, and it didn’t work. Those are facts that can’t be ignored.”
American military officials said Wednesday that there was no plan to allow the military to join the C.I.A. in operating armed drones inside Pakistan. They disputed a report in The Los Angeles Times on Tuesday that said Pakistan had been given joint control of armed American military drones inside Pakistan. Obama administration officials are vigorously resisting sharing the drone technology with Pakistani security forces, but officials from both countries said compromises were possible.
American and some Pakistani officials spoke anonymously because the C.I.A. drone operations are classified.
Pakistani officials said that Mr. Zardari wanted the drone technology partly to tamp down anger inside Pakistan over the campaign of C.I.A. airstrikes inside the country, which have killed civilians in addition to more than a dozen Qaeda leaders. If Pakistan had its own Predators, they said, the government in Islamabad could make a more plausible case to the public that Pakistani missiles, not American missiles, were being used to kill militants.
“Pakistan’s concerns about the drones do not relate to their ability to take out bad guys, they relate to the collateral damage and concerns about national sovereignty,” said Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States.
As a compromise, the American military in Afghanistan a few months ago offered to increase the amount of sensitive surveillance information it shared with the Pakistani military. American officials said the information could help Pakistani forces combat an increasingly lethal militancy that was spreading not only in the tribal areas, but also in the settled areas of Swat and Buner, closer to Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. American and Pakistani officials said that such information-sharing initiatives could build trust between the security services of both nations.
In mid-March, the American military in Afghanistan flew a demonstration mission of a Predator drone along a stretch of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to show the kind of imagery and communications information the Predator could provide. The Americans transmitted the information to a border coordination center near the Khyber Pass operated by American, Pakistani and Afghan personnel, and the information was sent through Pakistani security databases.
The test run went well enough that Pakistan subsequently requested a small number of additional Predator reconnaissance flights to support their operations in the border tribal areas.
But American officials said the requests for additional surveillance missions ended suddenly in early April. “There was no reason given, it just stopped,” said one senior American defense official. American officials suggested that the change could be the result of internal divisions in the Pakistani military over how closely to cooperate with the Americans on intelligence.
For its part, the Obama administration has provided the Pakistanis with the surveillance information but has resisted sharing detailed information about how the drones operate. “This is technology we haven’t given to our closest allies — the Brits or the Australians or NATO,” said one senior American official who is working on Pakistan issues.
Infusing this debate is a continuing suspicion by American intelligence officials of the premier Pakistani spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI. Because the Predators, and now an even more sophisticated drone called the Reaper, have been among the most successful weapons against Qaeda and other militant leaders, there is deep concern that any information about the drones’ operating patterns, blind spots, and takeoff and landing locations could be leaked to the insurgents and used to take down the drones.
As the fighting in Swat unfolded this week, missiles fired by a remotely piloted American drone killed 15 people, suspected of being militants, in a village in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas on Tuesday. The missiles, apparently three in all, hit a suspected safe house operated by local militants in Sra Khawra, a village that sits on the border between the tribal agencies of North and South Waziristan.
It was the 18th American drone attack in Pakistan so far this year, compared with 36 in all of last year.