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Special drones pursue militias

The U.S. runs the risk of alienating Pakistan with its escalating offensive targeting extremists there.

September 12, 2008|Greg Miller and Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — As part of an escalating offensive against extremist targets in Pakistan, the United States is deploying Predator aircraft equipped with sophisticated new surveillance systems that were instrumental in crippling the insurgency in Iraq, according to U.S. military and intelligence officials.

The use of the specially equipped drones comes amid a fundamental shift in U.S. strategy in the area. After years of deferring to Pakistani authorities, the Bush administration is turning toward unilateral American military operations -- a gambit that could increase pressure on Islamic militants but risks alienating a country that has been a key counter-terrorism ally.

In an indication of the priority being given to the Pakistan campaign, U.S. officials said the specially equipped aircraft were being pulled from other theaters to augment aerial patrols above the tribal belt along Afghanistan's eastern border.

Pakistan's government has found itself caught between Washington's demands for action and the unpopularity of the U.S. campaign, which has included half a dozen Predator strikes and a ground raid in the last few weeks.

This morning, witnesses said, at least eight people were believed killed in what appeared to be a Predator strike in North Waziristan, near the Afghan border.

Pakistanis complain that U.S. raids frequently kill civilians in addition to militants.

Pakistani forces also are carrying out their own campaign against the militants, and say they have killed hundreds in the last month, making the U.S. raids unnecessary.

American officials requested that details of the new technology not be disclosed out of concern that doing so might enable militants to evade U.S. detection. But officials said the previously unacknowledged devices have become a powerful part of the American arsenal, allowing the tracking of human targets even when they are inside buildings or otherwise hidden from Predator surveillance cameras.

Equally important, officials said, the systems have significantly speeded up decisions on when to strike. The technology gives remote pilots a means beyond images from the Predator's lens of confirming a target's identity and precise location.

A military official familiar with the systems said they had a profound effect, both militarily and psychologically, on the Sunni Arab insurgency in Iraq.

"It is like they are living with a red dot on their head," said a former U.S. military official familiar with the technology who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity because it has been secret. "With the quietness of the Predator, you never knew when a Hellfire [missile] would come through your window."

The new Predator capabilities are a key ingredient in an emerging U.S. military offensive against Taliban strongholds and Al Qaeda havens in Pakistan.

Previously, the United States' main focus in Pakistan's tribal territory was gathering intelligence that could be used to direct raids by the Pakistani military, or occasional missile strikes from CIA-operated Predator planes.

Intelligence activities will increasingly be geared now toward enabling U.S. Special Forces units -- backed by AC-130 gunships and other aircraft -- to carry out operations against Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives, officials said.

The change in strategy reflects frustration within the Bush administration over Pakistan's failure to root out insurgent groups or disrupt the flow of militants who launch attacks in Afghanistan and then retreat to Pakistan.

After years of building alliances with local tribes, Al Qaeda and Taliban groups now have a "mature" haven in Pakistan from which to operate, said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The New York Times reported Thursday that President Bush signed an order in July authorizing U.S. special operations forces to conduct missions in Pakistan without asking for its permission.

A former senior CIA official said similar proposals had been in circulation as early as 2003. A Pentagon proposal to make wider use of special operations forces in Pakistan was debated for months by the National Security Council, said a government official.

But until this summer, Bush was reluctant to authorize the action in part out of loyalty to former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who was forced from office last month.

At the same time, rising numbers of American troops being killed in Afghanistan caused a shift in thinking among many in the Pentagon. A total of 113 U.S. troops have been killed in the country this year, including two Thursday.

In response, the United States has stepped up Predator strikes. But the clearest signal of a new strategy came last week when about 20 people were killed in a raid on the village of Musa Nika by U.S. special operations forces flown by helicopter from Afghanistan.

That operation, and the turn in Bush administration policy, has been condemned by senior Pakistani officials, including the army chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani.

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