CIA Escalates in Pakistan
|Onlookers in Pakistan’s Sindh province after suspected militants set fire to tankers Friday carrying fuel for NATO troops in Afghanistan.|
WASHINGTON—The U.S. military is secretly diverting aerial drones and weaponry from the Afghan battlefront to significantly expand the CIA’s campaign against militants in their Pakistani havens.
The shift in strategic focus reflects the U.S. view that, with Pakistan’s military unable or unwilling to do the job, more U.S. force against terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan is now needed to turn around the struggling Afghan war effort across the border.
In recent months, the military has loaned Predator and Reaper drones to the Central Intelligence Agency to give the agency more firepower to target and bombard militants on the Afghan border.
The additional drones helped the CIA escalate the number of strikes in Pakistan in September. The agency averaged five strikes a week in September, up from an average of two to three per week. The Pentagon and CIA have ramped up their purchases of drones, but they aren’t being built fast enough to meet the rapid rise in demand.
The escalated campaign in September was aimed, in part, at disrupting a suspected terrorist plot to strike in Western Europe. U.S. officials said Friday their working assumption is that Osama bin Laden and other senior al Qaeda operatives are part of the suspected terror plot—or plots—believed to target the U.K., France or Germany. They said they are still working to understand the contours of the scheme.
U.S. officials say a successful terrorist strike against the West emanating from Pakistan could force the U.S. to take unilateral military action—an outcome all parties are eager to avoid.
Although the U.S. military flies surveillance drones in Pakistan and shares intelligence with the Pakistani government, Pakistan has prohibited U.S. military operations on its soil, arguing they would impinge on the country’s sovereignty. The CIA operations, while well-known, are technically covert, allowing Islamabad to deny to its unsupportive public its involvement with the strikes. The CIA doesn’t acknowledge the program, and the shift of Pentagon resources has been kept under wraps.
Pakistan has quietly cooperated with the CIA drone program which started under President George W. Bush. But the program is intensely unpopular in the country because of concerns about sovereignty and regular reports of civilian casualties. U.S. officials say the CIA’s targeting of militants is precise, and that there have been a limited number of civilian casualties.
U.S. officials said there is now less concern about upsetting the Pakistanis than there was a few months ago, and that the U.S. is being more aggressive in its response to immediate threats from across the border.
“You have to deal with the sanctuaries,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D., Mass.) said after meeting with Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, in Washington this week. “I’ve pushed very, very hard with the Pakistanis regarding that.”
Tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan have been exacerbated in recent days by a series of cross-border attacks by North Atlantic Treaty Organization helicopter gunships. Islamabad responded by shutting a key border crossing used to supply Western troops in Afghanistan and threatening to halt NATO container traffic altogether. On Friday, militants in Pakistan attacked tankers carrying fuel toward another border crossing, in another sign of the vulnerability of NATO supply lines crossing Pakistani territory.
Because U.S. military officials say success in Afghanistan hinges, in large part, on shutting down the militant havens in Pakistan, the surge in drone strikes could also have far-reaching implications for the Obama administration, which is under political pressure to show results in the nine-year Afghan war and has set a goal of beginning to withdraw troops in July.
The secret deal to beef up the CIA’s campaign inside Pakistan shows the extent to which military officials see the havens there, used by militants to plan and launch attacks on U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, as the primary obstacle to the Afghan war effort.
“When it comes to drones, there’s no mission more important right now than hitting targets in the tribal areas, and that’s where additional equipment’s gone,” a U.S. official said. “It’s not the only answer, but it’s critical to both homeland security and force protection in Afghanistan.”
The idea of funneling military resources through the CIA was broached during last year’s Afghanistan-Pakistan policy review, officials say. The shift in military resources was spearheaded by CIA Director Leon Panetta and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a former CIA director himself. It also has the backing of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, and the new commander of allied forces in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus.
Mr. Gates helped smooth over initial dissent among some at the Pentagon who argued that the drones were needed in Afghanistan to attack the Taliban.
Since taking command in Afghanistan in July, Gen. Petraeus has placed greater focus on the tribal areas of Pakistan, according to military and other government officials.
The U.S. military has been focused on trying to persuade the Pakistan army to step up its actions against militants in the tribal areas. That effort led to operations in some areas, but not North Waziristan, which is used by the Haqqani militant network to mount cross-border attacks and is believed by U.S. officials to be the hiding place of senior al Qaeda leaders.
Pakistan says its army has been spread thin, limiting its ability to carry out additional large-scale operations. Its resources have also been diverted to responding to the worst flooding in the country’s history.
The U.S. now sees the need for a stronger American push in Pakistan because of the growing belief that Pakistan isn’t going to commit any more resources to fighting militants within its borders, said a former senior intelligence official. The Pakistani military is tapped out, the former official said. “They’ve gone as far as they can go.”
U.S. officials are also increasingly frustrated by what they see as Islamabad’s double-dealing. Some elements of the country’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency continue to support the Haqqanis as a hedge against India’s regional influence, and the government has rebuffed U.S. calls for a crackdown on the group.
Pakistani government officials have repeatedly denied that they provide any support to the Haqqanis and said their military is too overstretched to take them on directly in their North Waziristan base.
Gen. Petraeus has taken a hard line on the Haqqani network, calling them irreconcilable. He has also met with top Pakistani military leaders and presented intelligence tying the Haqqanis operating out of North Waziristan havens to attacks on U.S. and Afghan troops, according to a military official.
The Pentagon has allowed loaned equipment and personnel to the CIA several times since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, according to former intelligence officials.
In addition to drone aircraft, officials said the military was sharing targeting information with the CIA from surveillance over-flights.