WASHINGTON – The United States and Pakistan reached tacit agreement in September on a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy that allows unmanned Predator aircraft to attack suspected terrorist targets in rugged western Pakistan, according to senior officials in both countries. In recent months, the U.S. drones have fired missiles at Pakistani soil at an average of once every four or five days.
The officials described the deal as one in which the U.S. government refuses to acknowledge publicly the attacks while Pakistan’s government continues to complain noisily about the politically sensitive strikes.
The arrangement coincided with a suspension of ground assaults into Pakistan by helicopter-borne U.S. commandos. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said in an interview last week that he was aware of no ground attacks since one on Sept. 3 that his government vigorously protested.
Officials described the attacks, using new technology and improved intelligence, as a significant improvement in the fight against Pakistan-based al-Qaida and Taliban forces. Officials confirmed the deaths of at least three senior al-Qaida figures in strikes last month.
Zardari said that he receives “no prior notice” of the airstrikes and that he disapproves of them. But he said he gives the Americans “the benefit of the doubt” that their intention is to target the Afghan side of the ill-defined, mountainous border of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), even if that is not where the missiles land.
Civilian deaths remain a problem, Zardari said. “If the damage is women and children, then the sensitivity of its effect increases,” he said. The U.S. “point of view,” he said, is that the attacks are “good for everybody. Our point of view is that it is not good for our position of winning the hearts and minds of people.”
A senior Pakistani official said that while the attacks contribute to widespread public anger in Pakistan, anti-Americanism there is closely associated with President George W. Bush. Citing a potentially more favorable popular view of President-elect Barack Obama, he said that “maybe with a new administration, public opinion will be more pro-American and we can start acknowledging” more cooperation.
The official, one of several who discussed the sensitive military and intelligence relationship only on the condition of anonymity, said the U.S-Pakistani understanding over the airstrikes is “the smart middle way for the moment.” Contrasting Zardari with his predecessor, retired Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the official said Musharraf “gave lip service but not effective support” to the Americans. “This government is delivering but not taking the credit.”