Pak snubs ‘impatient’ US’ demands for expanding areas for CIA drone operations

Saturday, November 20, 2010

ISLAMABAD - The United States has renewed its pressure on Pakistan to expand the areas where CIA drones can operate inside the country, reflecting the concern that the US war effort in Afghanistan is being undermined by the insurgents’ continued ability to take sanctuary across the border, US and Pakistani officials said.

The officials said that although the US appeal has focused on the area surrounding the Pakistani city of Quetta, where the Afghan Taliban leadership is thought to be based, it also seeks to expand the boundaries for drone strikes in the tribal areas, which have been targeted in 101 attacks this year, The Washington Post reported.

US officials confirmed the request for expanded drone flights, citing concern that Quetta functions not only as a sanctuary for Taliban leaders but also as a base for sending money, recruits and explosives to Taliban forces inside Afghanistan, it added.

“If they understand our side, they know the patience is running out,” a senior NATO military official said.

But Pakistan has rejected the request, officials said, adding that it has instead agreed to more modest measures, including an expanded CIA presence in Quetta, where the agency and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate have established teams seeking to locate and capture senior members of the Taliban.

“You expect us to open the skies for anything that you can fly,” said a high-ranking Pakistani intelligence official, who described the Quetta request as an affront to Pakistani sovereignty. “In which country can you do that?”

Although the CIA’s drone campaign in the country has accelerated dramatically in recent months, Pakistan places strict boundaries on where CIA drones can fly. The unmanned aircraft may patrol designated flight “boxes” over the country’s tribal belt but not other provinces, including Balochistan, which encompasses Quetta.

“They want to increase the size of the boxes, they want to relocate the boxes,” a second Pakistani intelligence official said of the latest U.S. requests. “I don’t think we are going to go any further.”

The senior Pakistani military official said that the US expectations had little to do with Islamabad’s own national security calculations.

“You have timelines of November elections and July ‘11 drawdowns - you’re looking for short-term gains,” the official said, referring to US President Barack Obama’s pledge to begin withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan in July next year. “Your short-term gains should not be our long-term pain,” he added.

While Pakistani officials stressed that Quetta is a densely populated city where an errant strike is more likely to kill innocent civilians, potentially provoking a backlash, US officials have long suspected that there are other reasons for Islamabad’s aversion, including the concern that US drones might be used to conduct surveillance of Pakistani nuclear weapons facilities in Balochistan, the paper said.

The disagreement over the scope of the drone program underscores broader tensions between the United States and Pakistan, wary allies that are increasingly pointing fingers at one another over the rising levels of insurgent violence on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border, it added.

The two sides disagree sharply over the importance of the Quetta Shura, the leadership council led by Mullah Mohammed Omar that presides over the Afghan Taliban. Some senior Pakistani officials refuse to use the term “Quetta Shura,” calling it a US construct designed to embarrass Pakistan, the paper said.

“I’m not denying the individual presence of members” of the Taliban in or near Quetta, a senior Pakistani military official said. “But to create the impression there is a body micromanaging the affairs of the Afghan Taliban . . . is very far-fetched.”

The push to expand the drone strikes has come up repeatedly in recent months, Pakistani officials admitted. The United States has also urged Pakistan to launch a military offensive in North Waziristan, a redoubt for militant groups including al-Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban and the Haqqani network, considered the most lethal foe of US forces in Afghanistan, the paper added.

However, Pakistani officials have ruled out a sweep anytime soon, saying that the country’s military is still consolidating its hold on territory in Swat and South Waziristan, where tens of thousands of residents were displaced during operations to oust militants last year. (ANI)

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