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U.S. Officials Cite Gains Against Al-Qaeda in Pakistan

The Special Operations ground teams do, however, have what this official called "standing orders" for an attack against the "big three" extremists thought to be in Pakistan -- al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri and Taliban leader Mohammad Omar -- if conclusive intelligence became available and the timing was right.

The Pakistani military has its own problems maintaining the delicate balance between popular approval and public outrage over its counterinsurgency actions, even without the U.S. component. The ongoing offensive in Swat and surrounding areas has displaced more than 2 million citizens and destroyed homes and entire towns. U.S. officials have stressed that the Pakistani government must not only sustain the offensive but also win the loyalty of its people by resettling and rebuilding areas it has damaged and guaranteeing their future security.

The United States has contributed $110 million to assist Pakistanis displaced by the Swat fighting, and President Obama is dispatching special envoy Richard C. Holbrooke there this week to assess the situation. Obama "remains very concerned . . . and is pressing internally to make sure we are doing all we can, in concert with our Pakistani friends, to address this in an aggressive way," according to a senior White House aide.

Beyond unease over public perceptions, a hesitant and often mistrustful relationship between the U.S. and Pakistani military and intelligence services continues to limit collaboration. Intelligence relations remain tense, officials from both governments said. Although the military cooperation has improved, "the Pakistan army still believes [the Americans] have ulterior motives," the Pakistani official said, including undermining Pakistan's nuclear weapons program.

Pakistan has accepted U.S. money, weaponry and limited training, but has rebuffed further U.S. efforts to assist its forces. Although the U.S. military flies Predators -- separate from those directed by the CIA -- along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, it is prohibited from overflying Pakistani territory. Thus far, the United States has turned down Pakistani requests for its own Predators.

This spring, U.S. forces offered a compromise: Pakistan could direct U.S. military Predators over areas of its choice, transmitting images directly into its own intelligence channels, according to officials from both governments. After Pakistan refused to allow a downlink to be established on its side of the border, the ground equipment was set up at a joint cooperation center on the Afghanistan side. Pakistani officials were taken to Turkey to observe a similar program.

"It was somewhere between March 10 or 15 that we flew the first 'proof of concept' mission for the Pakistanis and said, 'Here's how the system would work. Here's how we can push data through your own networks so you would have capability available to you,' " said a U.S. military official familiar with the program. Although the Predators were armed, U.S. and Pakistani officials said, no offensive operations beyond intelligence-gathering were contemplated or authorized.

Twelve missions were flown over the tribal regions near the border. But in mid-April, the Pakistanis abandoned the project, the official familiar with the program said. "They just did not ask for additional flight information. Any time we have asked them if they need anything, they've come back and said, 'No, thank you.' "

The Pakistani official said that his government expected the program to continue eventually but that its attention was now focused farther east, on the ongoing Swat offensive. U.S. overflights there were not wanted, he said. "We don't want the American UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] going so deep" into Pakistani territory, he said.


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