WASHINGTON — The U.S. military has launched a program of armed Predator drone missions against militants in Pakistan that for the first time gives Pakistani officers significant control over routes, targets and decisions to fire weapons, U.S. officials said.
The joint effort is aimed at getting the government in Islamabad, which has bitterly protested Predator strikes, more directly engaged in one of the most successful elements of the battle against Islamist insurgents.
It also marks a broad new role for the U.S. military in hunting the Taliban and its Al Qaeda allies, who pose a growing threat to both Pakistan and Afghanistan. For years, that task has been the domain of the CIA, which has flown its own Predator missions over Pakistan.
Under the new partnership, a separate fleet of U.S. drones operated by the Defense Department will be free for the first time to venture beyond the Afghan border under the direction of Pakistani military officials, who are working alongside American counterparts at a command center in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
"This is about building trust," said a senior U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the program has not been publicly acknowledged. "This is about giving them capabilities they do not currently have to help them defeat this radical extreme element that is in their country."
The program represents a significant departure from how the war against the Taliban has been fought for most of the last seven years. The heavy U.S. military presence in Afghanistan has been largely powerless to pursue the Islamic extremists who routinely escape into Pakistan.
But the initiative carries serious risks for Pakistan, which is struggling to balance a desire for more control over the Predators with a deep reluctance to become complicit in U.S. drone strikes on its people.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, on a visit to Washington last week, reiterated his nation's request for its own fleet of Predators. U.S. officials have all but ruled that out, and they described the new, jointly operated flights as an effective compromise.
Pakistani officials said Tuesday that they were working with U.S. officials to better utilize the American technology. In a statement, Husain Haqqani, Islamabad's ambassador to Washington, said Pakistan remained concerned that the "unilateral" CIA drone strikes violated the nation's sovereignty.
"Pakistan has not been averse to using every available means in tracking down Al Qaeda and other terrorists," Haqqani said. "We have been working with the U.S. side to find ways in which the U.S. technological advantage matches up with our desire to uphold our sovereignty within our borders."
CIA Predators flown covertly in Pakistan continue to focus on the United States' principal target, Al Qaeda. The military drones, however, are intended to undermine the militant networks that have moved closer to Islamabad, the capital, in recent weeks.
Over the last month, officials said, the U.S. has offered Pakistan control over multiple flights involving the Defense Department's Predator and more heavily armed Reaper drones.
Pakistan declined an offer to use the drones for its recent military offensives in the Swat Valley and Buner areas, and poor weather has caused other sorties to be scrapped. But the senior U.S. military official said that at least two missions had been flown in recent weeks under Pakistani direction.
The missions have not involved the firing of any missiles, and some U.S. officials have expressed frustration that the Pakistanis have not used the Predator capabilities more aggressively. Officials said Pakistan was given the authority to order strikes on the jointly operated flights as long as there was U.S. agreement on the targets.
Over the last year, Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has made repeated trips to Islamabad to push for greater Pakistani cooperation.
The program is part of a broader overhaul of the U.S. military approach in the region. Army Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, named this week to become the new top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, expanded the use of Predators while in Iraq and is expected to do the same in his new post.
The missions are being controlled from the jointly operated command center in Jalalabad. The center contains a "fusion cell" that merges information gathered from American surveillance with human intelligence collected by Pakistani and Afghanistan forces.
Debates between Pakistanis and Americans have taken place within the center over whether potential targets are Taliban leaders or Pakistani tribesmen with only a loose affiliation with the extremists. Nonetheless, U.S. officials said most Pakistani officers in the command center understood the militant threat and were eager to move aggressively.
Pakistani superiors have had more reservations and have equivocated when asked for permission to fire on suspected militants.