Officials familiar with the January 22, 2008 meeting between Army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and then US CENTCOM head Admiral William J Fallen confirmed that the Pakistan Army had asked for “drone support” – but only for surveillance of the tribal areas.
Requesting anonymity the officials said without referring to the January 2008 meeting that the issue of drone support had been a frequent subject of meetings between the military brass from both Pakistan and the United States.
“There are two types of drones: one is for surveillance and the other for missile strikes,” explained a military official saying that the Pakistani military only sought the US help for reconnaissance.
The fresh US diplomatic cables leaked by secret-busting Web site Wikileaks revealed that in the Jan 22 meeting with top US military commander, Gen Kayani had asked for “continuous predator coverage” over the tribal areas.
“Referring to the situation in Waziristan,” a February 11, 2008 cable says, “Kayani asked if Fallon could assist in providing continuous Predator coverage of the conflict area.”
The Pakistan Army denied the report, saying no armed drone support had ever been sought. Clarifying the position, the military spokesperson said that in the past, there had only been sharing of technical intelligence in some areas.
“During Swat-Malakand Operation, Rah-e-Rast, in 2008-09, and South Waziristan Agency operation, Rah-e-Nijat, in 2009-10, not even outside technical support was asked for,” he added. These operations were jointly conducted by the Pakistan Army and Pakistan Air Force, the spokesperson added.
Despite strong opposition to the drones from the civil and military leadership, it is widely believed that Pakistan and the US have some kind of understanding on the use of unmanned predators to take out ‘high value targets’ associated with al Qaeda and its affiliates in the tribal belt.
Last year, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani revealed for the first time that the former military ruler General (retd) Pervez Musharraf had allowed the US drones only for surveillance.
But official sources say that the two countries have an understanding that the armed drones will be used if there is actionable intelligence on ‘high value targets.’
One such example of this cooperation was the killing of the Tehreek-e-Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud in a US drone attack of August 2009.
The key human intelligence for the Pakistan’s most wanted man’s hideout was provided by the country’s spy agencies to the US. However, the US subsequently ignored the ‘actual understanding’ and expanded the drone campaign by targeting the suspects besides the real ‘high value targets.’
The reason behind the unprecedented increase in the drone strikes in the last three years was that the CIA had established a strong network of its local operatives in the tribal areas, which provide the necessary human intelligence.
“The drones are flying from the Pakistani bases, so there is no doubt that the US is carrying out drone strikes with our permission,” commented former diplomat Rustam Shah Mehmond.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 21st, 2011.
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