Pakistan and US resuming counterterror talks with a familiar fight over US drone strikes
WASHINGTON — The United States and Pakistan are resuming high-level counterterrorism talks suspended over a deadly border incident last year, with Pakistan’s spy chief set to visit Washington late this month, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials.
They start at an impasse, with the U.S. already determined to reject Pakistan’s demands to end CIA drone strikes. Pakistani officials will also be pushing a plan to replace the CIA drone campaign with Pakistani F-16 strikes, and eventually its own armed drone fleet — a proposal that U.S. officials say they have rejected many times before.
The divergent views reflect the deterioration in U.S.-Pakistani ties over the last 18 months, and the hardening of positions on both sides. The clash over CIA drone strikes that the U.S. sees as crucial to routing militants sets a combative tone for the first meeting between Pakistani intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Zaheerul Islam and CIA Director David Petraeus, at CIA headquarters in Virginia.
Yet each side is also signaling a willingness to improve cooperation.
Pakistani officials say they may allow the return of some U.S. military personnel to operate mobile intelligence centers with the Pakistani army in the lawless tribal regions. The presence of U.S. troops on Pakistani soil is an extremely sensitive subject in Pakistan, where anti-American feeling runs high.
The U.S. is working to meet Pakistan’s new requests for logistical and equipment support to improve the performance and accuracy of the country’s F-16 fleet, according to U.S. officials current and former.
All officials spoke anonymously to discuss sensitive strategy and negotiations.
U.S. officials insisted CIA drone strikes on Pakistani territory must continue, because Pakistan’s U.S.-approved F-16 program is still no match for the accuracy of the CIA campaign.
They cite a failed experiment last fall, where U.S. officials gave the Pakistanis coordinates of a Taliban outpost in the remote tribal areas. The Pakistani F-16s carried out a nighttime bombing raid using night-vision-enabled targeting pods on a squadron of modernized F-16s the U.S. sold them in 2010. Despite the new equipment, the pilots hit “the wrong chain of mountains,” said one former U.S. official. The explosion signaled the attack to the militants, who fled.
U.S. officials also say the Pakistanis would be reluctant to target U.S. enemies like the Haqqani network, which maintains an informal peace with the Pakistani military while attacking U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials cite at least three cases where they believe the Pakistani military or intelligence service tipped off Haqqani militants after the U.S. shared their location. The officials say they would have to see the Pakistani military go after the network in ground operations, before they would consider curtailing any U.S. counterterrorist activity.
“There is a lot of skepticism on the Pakistan ability to act on our intelligence and not let the targets get away intentionally or deliberately,” says Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a member of the House intelligence committee.
Pakistan’s intelligence chief will come with a list of requests including drone technology, a senior Pakistani security official said Tuesday. Islam will also push for equipment Pakistani officials say will boost the accuracy of their F16 fleet, while laying out a plan to phase out CIA drones altogether, according to three other Pakistani officials.
From the Pakistani perspective, that plan would start with joint strikes, combining their F-16s and the CIA’s drones. The drones would provide round-the-clock surveillance of the targets for the days and hours leading up to the strike, then Pakistani jets would hit the target.
The White House and the CIA declined to comment. Pentagon spokesman George Little would not confirm the Pakistani proposal, but said “we seek to continue our counterterrorism cooperation with the Pakistanis — cooperation that goes back years.”
Last year arguably marked the lowest point in U.S.-Pakistani relations. The Pakistanis were insulted by a series of incidents, especially the U.S. Navy SEAL raid into Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden, and the border skirmish last fall where the U.S. killed 24 Pakistani troops.
Pakistan demanded an apology for the deaths, which the U.S. insisted were the result of mistakes on both sides.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton apologized in early July, after months of refusals. The intelligence talks are one of the first signs that the apology unfroze contacts that the U.S. has found helpful in the past.
The U.S. also needs Pakistan as a supply route into Afghanistan and to help keep militants at bay. Clinton’s apology cleared the way for overland supply routes into Afghanistan to be reopened and for Pakistan to begin to seek more control over counterterrorist activities on its soil.
The reopening in turn cleared the way for the release of some $1.1 billion in U.S. funds that have been held up for months, top senators said Tuesday.