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U.S. acknowledges Pakistan drone program

Central Command and other military officials say the joint effort does not include the use of armed strikes on suspected militant positions, only intelligence gathering.

May 14, 2009|Julian E. Barnes

WASHINGTON — The U.S. military has flown drones into Pakistan at least a dozen times in recent weeks in cooperation with the Pakistanis as part of a new program, U.S. officials acknowledged Wednesday.

The military conducted test flights in March to demonstrate intelligence gathering capabilities to the Pakistanis. Those were followed by Pakistani requests for additional Predator flights to collect intelligence on suspected militants, said an official from U.S. Central Command, which oversees forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The program's existence was first reported Wednesday by The Times. Officials have told The Times that it represented an effort to have U.S. and Pakistani military officers work together on drones and to persuade Pakistan to fire the drones' missiles at militant positions.

In response, the Central Command official and other military officers said Wednesday that a formal U.S. proposal for the joint effort did not include the use of armed strikes on suspected militant positions.

"This program is designed to provide an intelligence capability, not a weapons capability," said the Central Command official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of Pakistani sensitivities about the program.

The government in Islamabad is ambivalent about the program, and strikes by the CIA's separate fleet of unmanned aircraft have been deeply unpopular with the Pakistani public. The Pakistanis have not requested use of the drones since mid-April, the Central Command official said.

The military's Predator and Reaper drones are always armed with missiles.

Some of the flights over Pakistan involved drones that crossed over the border after armed missions in Afghanistan.

Some U.S. military officials have expressed frustration at Islamabad's reluctance to use the drones offensively.

"This is an enhancement that will help you save your soldiers, your people," one senior officer said he told the Pakistanis. "You will be more credible, you will be more effective."

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

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