By Greg Miller
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 3, 2010; 4:06 AM
The CIA is using an arsenal of armed drones and other equipment provided by the U.S. military to secretly escalate its operations in Pakistan by striking targets beyond the reach of American forces based in Afghanistan, U.S. officials said.
The merging of covert CIA operations and military firepower is part of a high-stakes attempt by the Obama administration to deal decisive blows to Taliban insurgents who have regained control of swaths of territory in Afghanistan but stage most of their operations from sanctuaries across that country's eastern border.
The move represents a signification evolution of an already controversial targeted killing program run by the CIA. The agency's drone program began as a sporadic effort to kill members of the al-Qaeda terrorist network but in the past month it has been delivering what amounts to a cross-border bombing campaign in coordination with conventional military operations a few miles away.
The campaign continued Saturday amid reports that two new CIA drone strikes had killed 16 militants in northwest Pakistan, following 22 such attacks last month.
The strategy shift carries significant risks, particularly if it is perceived as an end-run around the Pakistan government's long-standing objections to American military operations within its domain.
Indeed, the surge in drone strikes over the past four weeks has to a large extent targeted elements of a network led by Jalaluddin Haqqani, a militant regarded as a close ally of Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence directorate.
Officials said last week that some of the recent strikes have also been aimed at disrupting al-Qaeda terror plots targeting Europe. A U.S. official said the State Department was weighing whether to issue an alert that would caution Americans to be "vigilant" when traveling in Europe - guidance that could come as soon as Sunday.
The U.S. military quietly has been providing Predator and Reaper drones, as well as other weaponry, to the CIA in an effort to give the agency more capacity to carry out lethal strikes in Pakistan, American officials said.
"Increasing the operational tempo against terrorists in Pakistan has been in the works since last year," a U.S. official said. "The CIA sought more resources to go after terrorists in Pakistan, which the White House strongly supported."
The official added that Defense Secretary Robert Gates and CIA Director Leon E. Panetta "worked closely together to expand the effort. The foundation for the latest intensification of strikes was laid then, and the results speak for themselves."
Although President Obama's announcement in December of the results of a U.S. strategy review in the region focused on deployment of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, officials said the months-long evaluation centered largely on the need to eliminate insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan. In late November, Obama wrote a personal letter to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari offering an expanded partnership and bluntly warning that continued ambiguity in Pakistan's relationship with the militants would no longer be tolerated. If the Pakistani military did not take more forceful action, Obama warned, the United States would be forced to act.
That message was reinforced last spring after intelligence indicated that the failed Times Square bomber had been trained in Pakistan. Panetta and National Security Adviser James L. Jones traveled to Pakistan to make clear that the United States was dissatisfied with Pakistan's efforts.
The White House said Saturday that it had no comment on the drone campaign.Better intelligence
The intensification of the drone campaign is unprecedented in scale. According to records kept by the New America Foundation, the 22 strikes the CIA is known to have carried out in September nearly doubled the previous monthly record, which was set in January after seven agency personnel were killed in a suicide attack in Afghanistan.
All but three of the September strikes have been aimed at insurgent nodes in North Waziristan, part of Pakistan's largely ungoverned tribal territories that is a stronghold of the Haqqani group.
The attacks have reportedly killed dozens of insurgents and an unknown number of civilians in a region that sits almost directly across from a cluster of U.S. military and secret CIA forward operating bases, which have been used by the agency to build a network of informants that stretches into Pakistan
"Our intelligence has gotten a lot better," the U.S. official said. "And you want to have the capabilities to match the quality of the intelligence coming."
Both the agency and the military have at times struggled with a shortage in the number of available drones, an asset that has transformed warfare over the past decade and that is in ever-increasing demand.
The military's willingness to lend at least part of its fleet to the CIA, which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal on Saturday, reflects rising frustration within the U.S. military command with Pakistan's inability or unwillingness to use its own forces to contain Haqqani's and other insurgent groups.
Officials said Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. military leader in Afghanistan, has advocated a more aggressive posture with Pakistan, and been particularly supportive of the CIA drone effort, which was first authorized by President George W. Bush.
The strikes are seen as a critical to crippling Taliban elements at a time when U.S. forces are facing looming deadlines to show progress in Afghanistan and to begin making plans for at least a small withdrawal of troops beginning in July.
Obama has promised Congress and the American public an assessment in December of whether the overall strategy is working. In a National Security Council meeting last month, Petraeus told the president he expected to show progress in five areas, including in the number of kills and captures of senior insurgents. In addition to the targeted drone attacks in Pakistan, Special Operations forces have escalated attacks against selected Taliban commanders in southern and eastern Afghanistan.
"Frustration with Pakistan is reaching the boiling point," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who led the Obama administration's initial overhaul of its Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy. "The consequence is there is a green light to whack away."Aggressive at border
Although the drone strike count has soared, its impact on the war effort remains unclear. Only scant information has surfaced on the targets that have been struck, let alone whether the damage will be sufficient to slow the insurgent campaign.
Beyond the drone strikes, the U.S. military has also become more aggressive in recent weeks along the border, carrying out helicopter raids that on at least three occasions crossed over into Pakistani air space in pursuit of targets accused of firing on American troops.
"It's moving from using [drones] as a counterterrorism platform to an almost counterinsurgency platform," said Riedel, a counterterrorism expert at the Brookings Institution. "Instead of using it to take out top operatives planning attacks in the United States, you're now using it almost tactically to soften up the sanctuary safe haven [to aid] our military."
"The risk that we run here is that at some point we're going to overload the circuit in Pakistan and they're going to say, 'too much,' " Riedel said, adding that the new use of CIA drones to strike targets on behalf of the American military alters the scale of an operation that depends on permission and cooperation from Pakistan.
There are recent indications that Pakistan is losing patience with the more aggressive American posture. Recent U.S. helicopter forays enraged Islamabad, prompting the nation to close, at least temporarily, a key U.S. military supply route into Afghanistan.
It was unclear whether the drones lent to the CIA by the military are being flown by CIA personnel, but officials said the aircraft now operate under the agency's authorities as part of a program under broad agency control.
CIA drone flights are restricted to "flight boxes," or boundaries set by the Pakistanis. The aircraft have been flown from bases inside Pakistan as well as Afghanistan.
Panetta was in Pakistan last week meeting with senior government officials. The trip had been planned for some time, officials said, and it was not clear whether it had been scheduled in anticipation that the accelerated pace of strikes would lead to new tensions.
The CIA operations come at a time when the U.S. military has opened a major phase of operations in and around Kandahar as part of an effort to reverse Taliban momentum on its home turf and provide security for citizens loyal to the beleaguered government in Kabul.
Staff writers Karen DeYoung, Glenn Kessler and Craig Whitlock contributed to this report.