WASHINGTON – The U.S. military is providing intelligence and surveillance video from drones and other aircraft to the Pakistani army to assist in its week-old offensive in South Waziristan, marking the deepest American involvement yet in a Pakistani military campaign, according to officials.
The assistance includes imagery from armed Predators that defense officials say are being used exclusively for intelligence gathering in the offensive.
Providing such information fills gaps in Pakistan’s spying arsenal, officials said, and helps show how the Obama administration intends to intensify pressure on insurgents in Pakistan, even as the administration overhauls the U.S. military strategy in neighboring Afghanistan.
The cooperation also reflects a significant shift for Pakistan, which had previously resisted U.S. offers to deploy unmanned Predators in support of Pakistani military operations.
Recent militant attacks have shaken the Pakistani government, convincing them of the need for help in taking on militants. On Thursday, gunmen opened fire on a Pakistani army jeep in Islamabad, killing a senior officer and his driver.
The current offensive, marked by heavy fighting, is seen as critical for the U.S. and Pakistan. South Waziristan is the base for Pakistani militants who have mounted a string of attacks across the country, and it is an important refuge for al-Qaida.
“We are coordinating with the Pakistanis,” said a senior military official. “And we do provide Predator support when requested.”
For months the U.S. and Pakistan have been sharing information from Predator flights in the volatile border regions, but until now the Pakistanis had not accepted help for their major military operations. Pakistan turned down American surveillance and targeting aid during the offensive in Swat that began in May.
The use of military drones in Pakistan is separate from the ongoing Predator campaign being carried out in that country by the CIA. Over the past 18 months, missile strikes from CIA-operated drones have killed at least 13 senior al-Qaida or Taliban operatives inside Pakistan’s tribal zone.
U.S. assistance is deeply controversial in Pakistan, which wants to avoid the appearance that it is dependent on the American government or military.