Pakistan protests U.S. attacks, but cooperates behind the scenes

WASHINGTON — Pakistan is publicly complaining about U.S. airstrikes. But the country’s new chief of intelligence, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, visited Washington last week for talks with America’s top military and spy chiefs, and everyone seemed to come away smiling.

They could pat themselves on the back, for starters, with the assassination of Khalid Habib, al-Qaida’s deputy chief of operations. According to Pakistani officials, he was killed on Oct. 16 by a Predator strike in the Pakistani tribal area of South Waziristan. Habib, reckoned by some to be the No. 4 leader in al-Qaida, was involved in recruiting operatives for future terror attacks against the United States.

The successful hit on Habib attests to the growing cooperation — in secret — between the U.S. and Pakistan in the high-stakes war along the Afghanistan border, which U.S. intelligence officials regard as the crucial front in the war on terrorism.

The CIA had been gunning for Habib for several years, including a January 2006 Predator attack that produced false reports he had been killed. The agency has needed better human intelligence on the ground, and improved liaison with Pakistan’s Interservices Intelligence agency, or ISI, may help.

Behind the stepped-up Predator missions in recent weeks is a secret understanding between the United States and Pakistan about the use of these drones. Given Pakistani sensitivities about American meddling, this accord has been shielded in the deniable world of intelligence activities. Officially, the Pakistanis oppose any violation of their airspace, and the Pakistani defense minister issued a public protest Monday about the Predator raids. But that’s not the whole story.

The secret accord was set after the September visit to Washington by Pakistan’s new president, Asif Zardari. It provided new mechanics for coordination of Predator attacks and a jointly approved list of high-value targets. Behind the agreement was a recognition by the Zardari government, and by Pakistan’s new military chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, that the imminent threat to Pakistan’s security comes from Islamic terrorists, rather than from arch-rival India.

The approved target list includes, in addition to al-Qaida operatives, some Afghan warlords who were once sheltered by ISI, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Haqqani family network and Taliban leader Mohammad Omar. Also on the target list is Baitullah Mehsud, often described as the leader of the Pakistani Taliban.

The ground war in the tribal areas is the Pakistanis’ responsibility, and they report some recent success. The most aggressive campaign has been in the district of Bajaur, just east from the Afghan province of Kunar. Starting in August, the Pakistani military began attacking al-Qaida and Taliban fighters there. When troops were stymied by a network of tunnels, the Pakistanis called in devastating air attacks.

Tribal leaders in Bajaur, angered by the fighting, began turning against the militants, according to Pakistani officials. The Pakistanis claim similar success in mobilizing local tribes in the border districts of Dir and Kurram. Next, they say, they plan to take the ground war into North and South Waziristan, where al-Qaida has its most important refuges.

A confidential Pakistani military report on the recent fighting in Bajaur and neighboring provinces counted 1,140 insurgents killed or wounded and 197 captured. Civilian casualties totaled 848 killed or wounded, plus 400,000 refugees.

The U.S. is quietly helping by sending at least 25 Special Forces soldiers to train the Pakistani Frontier Corps. But the Americans, recognizing public sensitivity to foreign interference, are keeping a low profile.

What’s different on the Pakistani side isn’t just the secret cooperation with America. There was lots of that under the previous president, Pervez Musharraf. What’s new is that Zardari and Kiyani are working openly to build popular support for their operations against the Muslim militants. An example was testimony on the terrorism threat last month to a secret session of the Pakistani parliament by Pasha, the new ISI chief.

And Kiyani seems determined to stop Musharraf’s practice of using the ISI to maintain contact with the Afghan warlords. He has cleaned house by appointing new heads for the service’s four main directorates, in addition to the new chief.

U.S. military and intelligence chiefs applaud the cooperation from Pakistan. But they’re still nervous. The U.S.-Pakistan relationship hangs by a slender thread; Pakistani pride sometimes prevents officials from taking full advantage of the relationship, and America’s embrace has sometimes been politically fatal for pro-American leaders, such as Musharraf.

And it’s an inherently unstable arrangement: Pakistan’s leaders publicly decry U.S. attacks, and the U.S., with a wink and a nudge to its ally, keeps on attacking.

David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His e-mail address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

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