June 30, 2009
By Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti
As Pakistan escalates military operations against a top Taliban leader, the United States has resumed secret military surveillance drone flights over the country’s tribal areas to provide Pakistani commanders with a wide array of videos and other information on militants, according to American and Pakistani officials.
The sharing of real-time video feeds, communications intercepts and other information with Pakistan’s military is considered essential in the country’s campaign to help hunt down the Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, and destroy his hideouts and forces in the country’s northwest, the officials said.
The increased intelligence cooperation comes as the Obama administration is also speeding the delivery of transport helicopters, body armor and other equipment that Pakistan’s military has requested to help combat Mr. Mehsud and to prepare for a major offensive in the militant leader’s stronghold in South Waziristan, a mountainous region abutting the border with Afghanistan.
The noncombat surveillance flights along the border are different from the flights of armed C.I.A.-operated drones that have attacked several Taliban targets in recent months and days. On June 23, an American drone strike on a funeral in Pakistan’s tribal areas missed Mehsud by hours.
Responding to Pakistan’s renewed request for sophisticated surveillance information gets around, at least for the moment, the tensions surrounding the administration’s refusal to grant repeated requests by President Zardari of Pakistan that his country be given its own armed Predator drones to attack fighters of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the mountainous tribal areas.
American intelligence operatives who conduct the armed drone flights inside Pakistan remain opposed to joint operations with Pakistani intelligence services, pointing out that past attempts were failures. Several years ago, American officials gave Pakistan advance word of planned Predator attacks but stopped the practice after the information was leaked to militants.
Under the intelligence-sharing arrangement, which resumed in the past few weeks but has not previously been made public, Pakistani ground forces receive direct support for several hours a day, though not necessarily every day, from remotely piloted American military aircraft based in Afghanistan, a senior American defense official said.
The agreement allows the Pakistani military to request that the American military drones fly noncombat surveillance missions over certain swaths of territory in South Waziristan where it suspects militant activity, the American official said. Video feeds from the drones are relayed to a joint coordination center at a border crossing at the Khyber Pass, where a Pakistani military team monitors the video and sends it to command centers in Pakistan, the official said.
There has been a lot of improvement in I.S.R.-related U.S. support to Pakistan, relating to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. But the technical connections have not been completely worked out.
American and Pakistani officials are still installing equipment to enhance and expand the flow of information from the joint coordination center to Pakistani security databases across the border.
But Pakistani commanders have used the surveillance and communications information from the American drones to track cross-border movements of militants and to monitor specific areas for insurgent activity that can be attacked by Pakistani helicopter gunships or F-16 attack planes.
The Pakistani and American militaries agreed to the surveillance flights earlier this year as a way to lend American technology to Pakistan’s efforts against militants. The drone missions were also seen as an incremental step in building trust between two militaries long suspicious of each other’s motives.
The Pakistanis authorized drone missions over Bajaur and surrounding locations near the Afghan border, but the requests ended abruptly when Pakistani troops launched offensives in Swat and Buner, areas deep inside Pakistani territory just dozens of miles from Islamabad.
Pakistani officials worried about the risks of flying American drones so far from the border, and they feared that if a Predator were shot down or crashed, it might set off public anger about American involvement in domestic Pakistani matters.
Now, with Pakistani troops preparing for an offensive in South Waziristan, these concerns have receded and the drone missions have resumed.
The intelligence sharing has helped in going after Mehsud’s fighters and confederates. American drone operators were now concentrating on militants who were of interest to the Pakistanis, like Mehsud, and not just foreign fighters and Al Qaeda operatives who posed more of a direct threat to the United States and American interests abroad.
President Obama’s national security adviser, James L. Jones, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of the military’s Central Command, have visited Pakistan recently to discuss security arrangements. Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, is expected in the next several days to make his fourth trip to the region since assuming his role earlier this year.
Pakistani officials say that they have continued to express frustration in private that the United States is not sharing the targets of the armed drone attacks in advance — revealing lingering distrust on both sides — and that the C.I.A. is not sharing the assessments of their strikes in a timely way, often giving them to Pakistani officials days after an attack.