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US gives drone data to Pakistan

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WASHINGTON: The US military for the first time has provided Pakistan with a broad array of surveillance information collected by US drones flying along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, US military officials said yesterday. But it is not clear whether the cooperation will continue. US military drones flew a handful of noncombat surveillance missions along the border earlier this spring at the request of the Pakistani government, but requests for additional flights stopped abruptly without explanation, the officials were quoted as saying by the New York Times.

The offer to give Pakistan a much larger amount of imagery, including real-time video feeds and communications intercepts gleaned by remotely piloted aircraft, was intended to help defuse a growing dispute over how to use the drones and which country should control the secret missions flown in Pakistani airspace, US officials said.

In meetings last week with President Obama and other US officials in Washington, President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan repeated his insistence that his country be given its own armed Predator drones to attack operatives of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan’s tribal areas along the Afghan border. But the US intelligence operatives who fly the armed drones inside Pakistan remain opposed to joint operations with Pakistani intelligence services, saying that past attempts were a failure. Several years ago, US officials gave Pakistan advance word of planned Predator attacks, but stopped the practice after the information was leaked to militants.

“We’re going after terrorists plotting directly against the United States and its interests,” said one US counter-terrorism official. “Nobody wants to gamble with those kinds of targets. We tried a joint approach before, and it didn’t work. Those are facts that can’t be ignored.”

US military officials said yesterday that there was no plan to allow the military to join the CIA in operating armed drones inside Pakistan. They disputed a report in The Los Angeles Times on Tuesday that said Pakistan had been given joint control of armed US military drones inside Pakistan. Obama administration officials are vigorously resisting sharing the drone technology with Pakistani security forces, but officials from both countries said compromises were possible.

US and some Pakistani officials spoke anonymously because the CIA drone operations are classified.

Pakistani officials said Zardari wanted the drone technology partly to tamp down anger inside Pakistan over the campaign of CIA air strikes inside the country, which have killed civilians in addition to more than a dozen Qaeda leaders. If Pakistan had its own Predators, they said, the government in Islamabad could make a more plausible case to the public that Pakistani missiles, not US missiles, were being used to kill militants.

Meanwhile the Los Angeles Times has reported that 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.”-ONLINE

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