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U.S. wants to widen area in Pakistan where it can operate drones

By Greg Miller
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 20, 2010; 12:25 AM

ISLAMABAD - The United States has renewed pressure on Pakistan to expand the areas where CIA drones can operate inside the country, reflecting concern that the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan is being undermined by insurgents' continued ability to take sanctuary across the border, U.S. and Pakistani officials said.

The U.S. appeal has focused on the area surrounding the Pakistani city of Quetta, where the Afghan Taliban leadership is thought to be based. But the request also seeks to expand the boundaries for drone strikes in the tribal areas, which have been targeted in 101 attacks this year, the officials said.

Pakistan has rejected the request, officials said. Instead, the country has agreed to more modest measures, including an expanded CIA presence in Quetta, where the agency and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate have established teams seeking to locate and capture senior members of the Taliban.

The disagreement over the scope of the drone program underscores broader tensions between the United States and Pakistan, wary allies that are increasingly pointing fingers at one another over the rising levels of insurgent violence on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border.

Senior Pakistani officials expressed resentment over what they described as misplaced U.S. pressure to do more, saying the United States has not controlled the Afghan side of the border, is preoccupied by arbitrary military deadlines and has little regard for Pakistan's internal security problems.

"You expect us to open the skies for anything that you can fly," said a high-ranking Pakistani intelligence official, who described the Quetta request as an affront to Pakistani sovereignty. "In which country can you do that?"

U.S. officials confirmed the request for expanded drone flights. They cited concern that Quetta functions not only as a sanctuary for Taliban leaders but also as a base for sending money, recruits and explosives to Taliban forces inside Afghanistan.

"If they understand our side, they know the patience is running out," a senior NATO military official said.

The CIA's drone campaign in Pakistan has accelerated dramatically in recent months, with 47 attacks recorded since the beginning of September, according to The Long War Journal, a Web site that tracks the strikes. By contrast, there were 45 strikes in the first five years of the drone program.

But Pakistan places strict boundaries on where CIA drones can fly. The unmanned aircraft may patrol designated flight "boxes" over the country's tribal belt but not other provinces, including Baluchistan, which encompasses Quetta.

"They want to increase the size of the boxes, they want to relocate the boxes," a second Pakistani intelligence official said of the latest U.S. requests. "I don't think we are going to go any further."

He and others spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the clandestine nature of a program that neither government will publicly acknowledge.

Pakistani officials stressed that Quetta is a densely populated city where an errant strike is more likely to kill innocent civilians, potentially provoking a backlash. Unlike the semi-autonomous tribal territories, Baluchistan is considered a core part of Pakistan.

U.S. officials have long suspected there are other reasons for Islamabad's aversion, including concern that the drones might be used to conduct surveillance of Pakistani nuclear weapons facilities in Baluchistan.

In interviews in Islamabad, senior Pakistani officials voiced a mix of appreciation and apprehension over the U.S. role in the region.

The high-ranking Pakistani intelligence official said the CIA-ISI relationship is stronger than at any times since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and that the two spy services carry out joint operations "almost on a daily basis."

"I wish [our] countries understood each other the way the CIA and ISI understand each other," the official said. But he also traced Pakistan's most acute problems, including an epidemic of militant violence, to two decisions by the government to collaborate with the United States.

Using the ISI to funnel CIA money and arms to mujaheddin fighters in the 1980s helped oust the Soviets from Afghanistan, the official said, but also made Pakistan a breeding ground for militant groups.

Similarly, Pakistan's cooperation since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has been key to the capture of al-Qaeda operatives and the success of the drone campaign. But it has inflamed radical elements in the country and made Islamabad a target of terrorrist attacks.

"We'd not have been here if we had not supported the Afghan jihad, if we had not supported [the response to] 9/11," the official said, adding that it was "our fault. We should have stood up."

Barring the CIA from flying drones over Quetta, the official said, is one area in which Pakistan is now taking a stand.

In other areas, CIA-ISI cooperation has deepened. The agencies have carried out more than 100 joint operations in the past 18 months, including raids that have led to the capture of high-ranking figures including Mullah Barader, the Taliban's former military chief.

The Pakistani intelligence official said the operations have been "mainly focused on Quetta." Teams based there rely on sophisticated surveillance technology and eavesdropping equipment provided by the CIA. When a raid or capture is attempted, the ISI is in the lead.

The aim is "to capture or arrest people based on intel primarily provided by Americans," the Pakistani intelligence official said. The effort has been underway for a year, the official said, but "now the intensity is much higher."

Nevertheless, U.S. and Pakistani officials acknowledged that they have no high-profile arrests or other successes to show for their efforts. The NATO military official said there had been "intelligence-led" operations against Taliban targets in Quetta in recent months but described them as "small scale" in nature.

The two sides disagree sharply over the importance of the Quetta Shura, the leadership council led by Mullah Mohammed Omar that presides over the Afghan Taliban. Some senior Pakistani officials refuse to use the term "Quetta shura," calling it a U.S. construct designed to embarrass Pakistan.

"I'm not denying the individual presence of members" of the Taliban in or near Quetta, a senior Pakistani military official said. "But to create the impression there is a body micromanaging the affairs of the Afghan Taliban . . . is very far-fetched."

The push to expand the drone strikes has come up repeatedly in recent months, Pakistani officials said. The United States has also urged Pakistan to launch a military offensive in North Waziristan, a redoubt for militant groups including al-Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban and the Haqqani network, considered the most lethal foe of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Pakistani officials ruled out a sweep anytime soon, saying the country's military is still consolidating its hold on territory in Swat and South Waziristan, where tens of thousands of residents were displaced during operations to oust militants last year.

The senior Pakistani military official said U.S. expectations have little to do with Islamabad's own national security calculations.

"You have timelines of November elections and July x'11 drawdowns - you're looking for short-term gains," the official said, referring to President Obama's pledge to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan in July. "Your short-term gains should not be our long-term pain."

Correspondents Karin Brulliard in Islamabad and Joshua Partlow in Kabul contributed to this report.

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