Pakistan Shift Could Curtail Drone Strikes
By ERIC SCHMITT and DAVID E. SANGER, New york times, February 22, 2008
WASHINGTON — American officials reached a quiet understanding with Pakistan’s leader last month to intensify secret strikes against suspected terrorists by pilotless aircraft launched in Pakistan, senior officials in both governments say. But the prospect of changes in Pakistan’s government has the Bush administration worried that the new operations could be curtailed.
Among other things, the new arrangements allowed an increase in the number and scope of patrols and strikes by armed Predator surveillance aircraft launched from a secret base in Pakistan — a far more aggressive strategy to attack Al Qaeda and the Taliban than had existed before.
But since opposition parties emerged victorious from the parliamentary election early this week, American officials are worried that the new, more permissive arrangement could be choked off in its infancy.
In the weeks before Monday’s election, a series of meetings among President Bush’s national security advisers resulted in a significant relaxation of the rules under which American forces could aim attacks at suspected Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the tribal areas near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.
The change, described by senior American and Pakistani officials who would not speak for attribution because of the classified nature of the program, allows American military commanders greater leeway to choose from what one official who took part in the debate called “a Chinese menu” of strike options.
Instead of having to confirm the identity of a suspected militant leader before attacking, this shift allowed American operators to strike convoys of vehicles that bear the characteristics of Qaeda or Taliban leaders on the run, for instance, so long as the risk of civilian casualties is judged to be low.
The new, looser rules of engagement may have their biggest impact at a secret Central Intelligence Agency base in Pakistan whose existence was described by American and Pakistani officials who had previously kept it secret to avoid embarrassing President Pervez Musharraf politically. Mr. Musharraf, whose party lost in this week’s election by margins that surprised American officials, has been accused by political rivals of being too close to the United States.
The base in Pakistan is home to a handful of Predators — unmanned aircraft that are controlled from the United States. Two Hellfire missiles from one of those Predators are believed to have killed a senior Qaeda commander, Abu Laith al-Libi, in northwest Pakistan last month, though a senior Pakistani official said his government had still not confirmed that Mr. Libi was among the dead. A C.I.A. spokesman declined on Thursday to comment on any operations in Pakistan.
The new agreements with Pakistan came after a trip to the country on Jan. 9 by Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, and Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the C.I.A. director. The American officials met with Mr. Musharraf as well as with the new army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and offered a range of increased covert operations aimed at thwarting intensifying efforts by Al Qaeda and the Taliban to destabilize the Pakistani government.
But Bush administration officials and American counterterrorism experts are expressing concern that these arrangements could come under review or be scaled back by the winners of Pakistan’s parliamentary elections. The two winning parties have said they want to enter talks with Pashtun tribal leaders who opposed the military government of Mr. Musharraf and who at times have supported the Taliban and given refuge to foreign Qaeda fighters.
“A new government may be able to reach an accord with the militants, and that would buy the government a certain respite,” said Robert L. Grenier, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Counterterrorism Center. “But that would give the militants space to provide safe haven to Al Qaeda and other extremists engaged in attacks in Afghanistan.”
Xenia Dormandy, the director for South Asia at the National Security Council until 2005, said Thursday that if talks resulted in the kind of truce — and pullback of Pakistani troops — that Mr. Musharraf negotiated nearly two years ago, the militants would probably continue to gain strength.
“If they try to replicate what we’ve already seen, I don’t know why the result would be any different,” she said. But she added that if the Pakistani military remained in the area, the government might retain some leverage.
The question of what to do next in Pakistan is likely to preoccupy the Bush administration in its last year. Officials say there is clear, if unstated, pressure to make a last effort to capture or kill Osama bin Laden before Mr. Bush leaves office. But several senior officials in the State Department have been warning that the administration’s full-scale backing of Mr. Musharraf was a wrong-headed strategy that could now blow up.
Other administration officials warned not to read too much into the initial comments from Asif Ali Zardari, the leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party and widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, about reaching accords with the tribal leaders. Mr. Zardari, they noted, has made clear that he wants to defeat terrorism.
Opposition parties and analysts say American officials were misinterpreting the outcome of the elections, which were dominated by the country’s liberal, secular parties. An alliance of religious parties that controlled the provincial government in the North-West Frontier Province was driven from power and even lost the majority of seats in the tribal areas.
Opposition parties say a new civilian-led government will be more effective at countering militancy than the military-dominated one under Mr. Musharraf. They say that Mr. Musharraf’s strategy has failed and that a new approach is needed.
Instead, the opposition parties have called for a strategy in the tribal areas similar to the new counterinsurgency strategies employed by the American military in Afghanistan and Iraq. There, the United States has tried to use a combination of military force, reconstruction and political dialogue to turn local tribes against militants.
The question, senior American and Pakistani officials said Thursday, was how the strategy to accomplish these common goals might change.
“In the short term, there will be some confusion and some hiccups,” said Henry A. Crumpton, a former top State Department counterterrorism official. “But in the medium and longer term, there will be continued and perhaps even closer cooperation, because of our mutual interests.”
David Rohde contributed reporting from Peshawar, Pakistan.