By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 1, 2009
Drone-launched U.S. missile attacks and Pakistan's ongoing military offensive in and around the Swat Valley have unsettled al-Qaeda and undermined its relative invulnerability in Pakistani mountain sanctuaries, U.S. military and intelligence officials say.
The dual disruption offers potential new opportunities to ferret out and target the extremists, and it has sparked a new sense of possibility amid a generally pessimistic outlook for the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Although al-Qaeda remains "a serious, potent threat," a U.S. counterterrorism official said, "they've suffered some serious losses and seem to be feeling a heightened sense of anxiety -- and that's not a bad thing at all."
The offensive in Swat against its Taliban allies also poses a dilemma for al-Qaeda, a senior military official said. "They're asking themselves, 'Are we going to contest' " Taliban losses, he said, predicting that al-Qaeda will "have to make a move" and undertake more open communication on cellphones and computers, even if only to gather information on the situation in the region. "Then they become more visible," he said.
It remains unclear whether U.S. intelligence and Pakistani ground forces can capitalize on such opportunities before they vanish. Chances to intercept substantive al-Qaeda communications or to take advantage of the movement of individuals are always fleeting, according to several officials of both governments, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss counterinsurgency operations and the bilateral relationship.
Since last fall, the Predator drone attacks have eliminated about half of 20 U.S.-designated "high-value" al-Qaeda and other extremist targets along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, U.S. and Pakistani officials said. But the attacks have also killed civilians, stoking anti-American attitudes in Pakistan that inhibit cooperation between Islamabad and Washington.
"The need to establish a trusting, mutually beneficial U.S.-Pakistan partnership is pressing, yet the ability to do so is severely challenged by current events," Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, wrote in a secret assessment on May 27. Petraeus's statement was declassified late last week so it could become part of the Obama administration's federal court appeal to block the release of detainee photographs showing abuse. The administration argues that the images would promote attacks against the United States worldwide.
"Anti-U.S. sentiment has already been increasing in Pakistan . . . especially in regard to cross-border and reported drone strikes, which Pakistanis perceive to cause unacceptable civilian casualties," Petraeus wrote. Nearly two-thirds of Pakistanis oppose counterterrorism cooperation with the United States, he said, and "35 percent say they do not support U.S. strikes into Pakistan, even if they are coordinated with the GOP [government of Pakistan] and the Pakistan Military ahead of time."
Judging by reports from the region through late April, the Obama administration authorized about four or five Predator attacks a month, maintaining a pace set by the Bush administration in August. The CIA, which does not publicly acknowledge the attacks, operates the aircraft, chooses the targets -- ideally with the cooperation of Pakistani intelligence on the ground -- and has White House authority to fire the missiles without prior consultation outside the intelligence agency. A senior Pakistani official said the rate has not diminished in recent weeks, although "you don't hear so much about it" because the strike areas have been more isolated.
"There are better targets and better intelligence on the ground," the Pakistani official said. "It's less of a crapshoot."
A second U.S. military official agreed, saying, "We're not getting civilians, and not getting outrage beyond the usual stuff."
The CIA considers the Predator the most effective tool available in a conflict in which the U.S. military is barred from conducting offensive operations on land or in the air. "We're not at the point yet where there's a sense that there's anything that could replace that," the second military official said of the drone attacks.
The Bush administration last summer also authorized covert U.S. ground raids inside Pakistan, but Pakistani outrage after a single attack in September led to their suspension. Although U.S. Special Operations teams are on continuous alert on the Afghan side of the border, the Obama administration has not authorized any ground operations in Pakistan, and the military is divided over their advisability. "We ask all the time," said a military official who favors such raids. "They say, 'Now is not a good time.' "
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.