Special drones pursue militias

Times Staff Writers

As part of an escalating offensive against extremist targets in Pakistan, the United States is deploying Predator aircraft equipped with sophisticated new surveillance systems that were instrumental in crippling the insurgency in Iraq, according to U.S. military and intelligence officials.

The use of the specially equipped drones comes amid a fundamental shift in U.S. strategy in the area. After years of deferring to Pakistani authorities, the Bush administration is turning toward unilateral American military operations -- a gambit that could increase pressure on Islamic militants but risks alienating a country that has been a key counter-terrorism ally.

In an indication of the priority being given to the Pakistan campaign, U.S. officials said the specially equipped aircraft were being pulled from other theaters to augment aerial patrols above the tribal belt along Afghanistan's eastern border.

Pakistan's government has found itself caught between Washington's demands for action and the unpopularity of the U.S. campaign, which has included half a dozen Predator strikes and a ground raid in the last few weeks.

This morning, witnesses said, at least eight people were believed killed in what appeared to be a Predator strike in North Waziristan, near the Afghan border.

Pakistanis complain that U.S. raids frequently kill civilians in addition to militants.

Pakistani forces also are carrying out their own campaign against the militants, and say they have killed hundreds in the last month, making the U.S. raids unnecessary.

American officials requested that details of the new technology not be disclosed out of concern that doing so might enable militants to evade U.S. detection. But officials said the previously unacknowledged devices have become a powerful part of the American arsenal, allowing the tracking of human targets even when they are inside buildings or otherwise hidden from Predator surveillance cameras.

Equally important, officials said, the systems have significantly speeded up decisions on when to strike. The technology gives remote pilots a means beyond images from the Predator's lens of confirming a target's identity and precise location.

A military official familiar with the systems said they had a profound effect, both militarily and psychologically, on the Sunni Arab insurgency in Iraq.

"It is like they are living with a red dot on their head," said a former U.S. military official familiar with the technology who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity because it has been secret. "With the quietness of the Predator, you never knew when a Hellfire [missile] would come through your window."

The new Predator capabilities are a key ingredient in an emerging U.S. military offensive against Taliban strongholds and Al Qaeda havens in Pakistan.

Previously, the United States' main focus in Pakistan's tribal territory was gathering intelligence that could be used to direct raids by the Pakistani military, or occasional missile strikes from CIA-operated Predator planes.

Intelligence activities will increasingly be geared now toward enabling U.S. Special Forces units -- backed by AC-130 gunships and other aircraft -- to carry out operations against Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives, officials said.

The change in strategy reflects frustration within the Bush administration over Pakistan's failure to root out insurgent groups or disrupt the flow of militants who launch attacks in Afghanistan and then retreat to Pakistan.

After years of building alliances with local tribes, Al Qaeda and Taliban groups now have a "mature" haven in Pakistan from which to operate, said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The New York Times reported Thursday that President Bush signed an order in July authorizing U.S. special operations forces to conduct missions in Pakistan without asking for its permission.

A former senior CIA official said similar proposals had been in circulation as early as 2003. A Pentagon proposal to make wider use of special operations forces in Pakistan was debated for months by the National Security Council, said a government official.

But until this summer, Bush was reluctant to authorize the action in part out of loyalty to former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who was forced from office last month.

At the same time, rising numbers of American troops being killed in Afghanistan caused a shift in thinking among many in the Pentagon. A total of 113 U.S. troops have been killed in the country this year, including two Thursday.

In response, the United States has stepped up Predator strikes. But the clearest signal of a new strategy came last week when about 20 people were killed in a raid on the village of Musa Nika by U.S. special operations forces flown by helicopter from Afghanistan.

That operation, and the turn in Bush administration policy, has been condemned by senior Pakistani officials, including the army chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani.

Kayani's statement was his first public criticism of the U.S. military, and his stance on such raids was regarded in Pakistan as a watershed because he had steered clear of politics during his nine months on the job.

Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gillani issued a statement Thursday saying that government policy forbids U.S. military incursions into Pakistan.

Pentagon officials said they hoped that Kayani's anger was mainly for domestic consumption, and would not lead to curtailed cooperation with the U.S. military, which depends on access to Pakistani ports to supply operations in Afghanistan.

The new surveillance technology being deployed on the Predators was developed as part of a special project within the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology, according to current and former officials familiar with the matter.

The CIA has been responsible for Predator flights over Pakistan but is now being pressured to cede some authority to the U.S. military. The agency declined to discuss details of the program.

"It's a poor idea, with American forces engaged in conflicts overseas, to speculate publicly about things like battlefield reconnaissance capabilities," CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano said.

Predator strikes were used in attacks that killed Al Qaeda military commander Mohammed Atef in Afghanistan in 2001 and Qaed Sinan Harithi, a suspected mastermind of the bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole, in Yemen in 2002.

However, Predators have also frequently missed their targets, including a high-profile attempt to attack Al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman Zawahiri in 2006. They have been blamed for the deaths of dozens of civilians in Pakistan, fueling resentment there toward the U.S.

The new system now being deployed was first used on aircraft in Afghanistan, then was installed on Predators in Iraq starting about a year ago. Officials said introduction of the devices coincided with the 2007 U.S. troop buildup in Iraq, and was an important, but hitherto unknown, factor in the subsequent drop in violence there.

The technology allows suspects to be identified quickly. "All I have to do is point the sensor at him," said a military officer familiar with the system, "and a missile can be off the rail in seconds."

The devices are roughly the size of an automobile battery, but are heavy enough that outfitted Predators in some cases carry only one Hellfire missile instead of two. At times, the systems also have been in short supply, requiring that crews move the devices from one Predator to another as they land and take off.

The unique capabilities have prompted competition among U.S. forces for access to specially equipped Predators, military officials said. The fleet being assembled for use in Pakistan has been assigned to the CIA and U.S. Special Operations Command, meaning fewer of the aircraft are available for conventional forces.

Military officials noted that Predators' effectiveness declines as the winter months approach. Bad weather, especially in the high altitudes, of the Afghan and Pakistani mountains, means that many days Predators and other drones cannot fly.

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greg.miller@latimes.com

julian.barnes@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Laura King in Istanbul, Turkey, and special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Evolving usage

The Predator, built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. of San Diego, is an unmanned drone aircraft.

The drones were originally designed for surveillance but have increasingly been armed with missiles since the Sept. 11 attacks.

The slender craft is 27 feet long with a 49-foot wingspan. It can hover above a target for many hours and can fly as low as 15,000 feet for reconnaissance missions. It is often operated by CIA or Pentagon officials at computer consoles in the United States.

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Source: Times reporting

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