US, Pak reach pact on drone strikes: NYT

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{image-pak-US+flafg_22022008.jpg}Washington, Feb 22: Pakistani and American officials have reportedly reached an understanding to intensify secret strikes against suspected terrorists by pilot-less aircraft launched in Pakistan.

According to the New York Times, the new arrangement allows for an increase in the number and scope of patrols and strikes by armed Predator surveillance aircraft launched from a secret base in Pakistan. But since the opposition parties emerged victorious from the parliamentary election early this week, American officials are worried that the new, more permissive arrangement could be choked off in its infancy. In the weeks before Monday's election, a series of meetings among President Bush's national security advisers resulted in a significant relaxation of the rules under which American forces could aim attacks at suspected Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the tribal areas near Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.

The change, described by senior American and Pakistani officials who would not speak for attribution because of the classified nature of the program, allows American military commanders greater leeway to choose from what one official who took part in the debate called "a Chinese menu" of strike options.

Instead of having to confirm the identity of a suspected militant leader before attacking, this shift allowed American operators to strike convoys of vehicles that bear the characteristics of Qaeda or Taliban leaders on the run, for instance, so long as the risk of civilian casualties is judged to be low. The new, looser rules of engagement may have their biggest impact at a secret Central Intelligence Agency base in Pakistan.

The base in Pakistan is home to a handful of Predators - unmanned aircraft that are controlled from the United States. Two Hellfire missiles from one of those Predators are believed to have killed a senior Qaeda commander, Abu Laith al-Libi, in northwest Pakistan last month, though a senior Pakistani official said his government had still not confirmed that Mr. Libi was among the dead.

The new agreements with Pakistan came after a trip to the country on January 9 by Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, and Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the C.I.A. director.

The American officials met with President Musharraf and Pakistan Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and offered a range of increased covert operations aimed at thwarting intensifying efforts by Al Qaeda and the Taliban to destabilize the Pakistani government.

But Bush administration officials and American counterterrorism experts are expressing concern that these arrangements could come under review or be scaled back by the winners of Pakistan's parliamentary elections.

The two winning parties have said they want to enter talks with Pashtun tribal leaders who opposed to the military-backed government. The question of what to do next in Pakistan is likely to preoccupy the Bush administration in its last year. Officials say there is clear, if unstated, pressure to make a last effort to capture or kill Osama bin Laden before Bush leaves office.

Opposition parties and analysts say American officials were misinterpreting the outcome of the elections, which were dominated by the country's liberal, secular parties.


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