By Ken Dilanian, Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — In an effort to mend badly frayed relations with Pakistan, the CIA has suspended drone missile strikes on gatherings of low-ranking militants believed to be involved in cross-border attacks on U.S. troops or facilities in Afghanistan, current and former U.S. officials say.
The undeclared halt in CIA attacks, now in its sixth week, is aimed at reversing a sharp erosion of trust after a series of deadly incidents, including the mistaken attack by U.S. gunships that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last month.
The pause also comes amid an intensifying debate in the Obama administration over the future of the CIA’s covert drone war in Pakistan. The agency has killed dozens of al-Qaida operatives and hundreds of low-ranking fighters there since the first Predator strike in 2004, but the program has infuriated many Pakistanis.
Some officials in the State Department and the National Security Council say many of the airstrikes are counterproductive. They argue that rank-and-file militants are easy to replace, and that Pakistani claims of civilian casualties, which the U.S. disputes, have destabilized the government of President Asif Ali Zardari, a U.S. ally.
And some U.S. intelligence officials are urging the CIA to cut back the paramilitary role it has assumed since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to refocus on espionage. They suggest handing the mission to the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command, which flies its own drones and conducts secret counter-terrorism operations in Yemen and Somalia.
The policy remains intact for now. But the CIA has decided to temporarily suspend so-called signature strikes, missile attacks against fighters and others whose actions, after observation by surveillance drones or other intelligence, suggest support for the Taliban and other insurgent groups in neighboring Afghanistan.
Among those targeted this year were members of the Haqqani network, an insurgent group allied with the Taliban. U.S. officials say Haqqani fighters took part in September attacks on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul, the Afghan capital.
The number of drone strikes in Pakistan has increased dramatically during the Obama administration. Under President George W. Bush, most of them targeted known al-Qaida and Taliban leaders. In July 2008, Bush gave the CIA additional authority to kill militants whose names were not known, but whose “pattern of life,” as the CIA called it, suggested involvement with terrorists or insurgent groups.
Under President Barack Obama, the CIA has expanded the drone war to target anyone in Pakistan’s tribal areas it considers a potential threat. The CIA has authority to fire at will, without authorization from outside the agency, as long as targets are in approved geographic “boxes” near the Afghan border.
Saying the strikes violate national sovereignty, Pakistan’s government wants a say in drone targeting and a degree of control over the CIA missions, a senior Pakistani defense official said in Washington. But the Obama administration has refused, citing cases in which targets escaped after intelligence was shared with Pakistan.
One of the main points of friction between the two countries was the U.S. raid in May that killed Osama bin Laden. U.S. officials launched the attack without telling Pakistan for fear of tipping off the Qaida leader.
U.S. and Pakistani officials said the CIA is still flying armed Predator and Reaper drones over Pakistan, and will kill a Qaida leader if the aircraft find one. But thanks in part to the drone war, only a few senior members of the core al-Qaida group are believed to be still alive there, including bin Laden’s successor, Ayman Zawahiri.
The CIA keeps a list of 20 top targets and “there have been times where they’ve struggled a little bit coming up with names to fill that list,” said a former senior U.S. intelligence official, who declined to be identified in discussing a classified program.
The former official is among those urging the CIA to reconsider its approach, arguing that the agency can’t kill all the fighters and that drones alone won’t solve the challenge from Islamic militants.
“A lot of people wonder whether we can keep trying to kill our way out of this problem,” the former official said. “There are people who are really questioning, ‘Where does all of this end?’”
When the current CIA director, David H. Petraeus, served as commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, he was known to be concerned that the CIA conducted drone strikes without sufficient regard for the military or diplomatic repercussions in either Afghanistan or Pakistan.
Some State Department officials insist that airstrikes on low-level militants now hurt U.S. interests in Pakistan more than they help.
“What colored State’s thinking was the impact that the drone operations were having on public opinion and its constraint on the evolution of a civilian government,” said a former senior State Department official, who asked not to be identified as discussing a classified program. “The continued attacks probably give motivation to those who would fight us.”
Shamila Chaudhary, who was Pakistan director in the National Security Council until July, said U.S. counter-terrorism operations were “one reason, though not the only reason, that the U.S.-Pakistan relationship has disintegrated. Until the conflicts over that policy are resolved, the two countries will continue to go from crisis to crisis.”
CIA officials argue that the drones have helped save American lives by eliminating militants who have engaged in cross-border attacks or are supplying bomb-making networks. In some cases, they say, al-Qaida leaders were killed in airstrikes on groups of militants, although their presence was not discovered until later.
There is no way to independently assess the accuracy or effectiveness of the strikes. Since they are classified, the Obama administration refuses to release details about them and Pakistan has barred access to the tribal areas by Western journalists or humanitarian agencies, including the International Committee of the Red Cross.
According to Long War Journal, a website that tracks the attacks through Pakistani news reports, the CIA launched 64 drone missile attacks in Pakistan this year, the last on Nov. 16. That compares with 114 last year and 53 in 2009. The agency launched 46 during the Bush administration, mostly in 2008.
The death toll is unclear. The New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, estimates that the CIA drones have killed at least 1,717 people, including 1,424 militants. Other estimates run considerably higher.
John Brennan, Obama’s chief counter-terrorism adviser, said this summer that there “hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency and precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop.”
When human rights groups and others challenged that assertion, citing numerous Pakistani accounts of civilian casualties, Brennan clarified his comments to say there were no civilian deaths that the administration had confirmed. U.S. officials later acknowledged a few civilian deaths this year.