Pakistan, US to resume talks on drone strikes

Associated Press
FILE - This Jan. 31, 2010 file photo shows a U.S. Predator drone flies over the moon above Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan.   U.S. and Pakistani officials say Pakistan's intelligence chief will head to Washington late this month to resume counterterrorism talks suspended over a deadly border incident last year that killed two dozen Pakistani troops.  (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File)
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WASHINGTON (AP) — Two generals turned spy chiefs are expected to sit down for their first official meeting in Washington later this month and try to mend the fractured U.S.-Pakistani relationship.

A long-sought U.S. apology to Pakistan over a deadly border incident cleared the way to restart the counterterrorism talks, with Pakistan's spy chief, Lt. Gen. Zaheerul Islam, set to meet CIA Director David Petraeus, at CIA headquarters in Virginia, U.S. and Pakistani officials said Tuesday.

Neither side expects much progress.

Pakistani officials say Islam will demand CIA drone strikes stop, asking instead for the U.S. to feed intelligence gathered by the pilotless aircraft to Pakistani jets and ground forces so they can target militants.

U.S. officials say Pakistan has proved incapable or unwilling to target militants the U.S. considers dangerous, so the CIA drone campaign — considered the most effective tool in the U.S. counterterrorist arsenal — will continue.

The divergent views reflect the deterioration in U.S.-Pakistani ties over the last 18 months and the hardening of positions on both sides.

Yet each side is also signaling a willingness to improve some limited 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 mobile centers, now mothballed at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, provide the Pakistanis live feeds of drone and satellite surveillance, which the U.S. troops help them analyze. The U.S. personnel were expelled last year as part of the diplomatic tit-for-tat after the U.S. Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

For its part, 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 current and former U.S. officials. The Americans also welcomed the opportunity to return U.S. military personnel to work with the Pakistani officers, able to observe the fight against militants in the tribal areas firsthand and to develop relationships with the junior Pakistani officers who will one day lead the country's military.

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 in which 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 in which 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.

"We've always talked about doing more joint operations, but there's hesitancy on our part because such operations haven't been successful in the past," says Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., who recently met Pakistan's defense chiefs there. "We'd have to see results at a lower level," like seeing Pakistani army troops actually strike Haqqani targets on the ground.

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 Pakistanis want U.S. permission to move the modernized F-16s it bought from the U.S. from southern Pakistan to a base that's only 30 minutes' flying time from North and South Waziristan. Other requests include help securing advanced fuel-tanker aircraft to keep the jets flying longer, as well as smaller, 200-pound precision bombs.

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 relation, with Pakistan demanding an apology for the border skirmish where the U.S. killed 24 Pakistani troops.

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 the two sides have nearly completed a formal agreement on how the routes will operate.

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.

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Dozier can be followed on Twitter (at)kimberlydozier.

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Associated Press writers Kathy Gannon and Munir Ahmed contributed to this report from Islamabad.

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