Pakistan Criticizes, Helps Coordinate Drone Attacks
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
ARI SHAPIRO, host:
And I'm Ari Shapiro.
President Obama has inherited a program that targets al-Qaida terrorists along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pilotless drones linger in the sky over their targets. Cameras onboard scan the ground below and send images to an operator who sits hundreds or even thousands of miles away. That operator just waits for the right moment to trigger a missile strike.
INSKEEP: American officials do not like to talk about the strikes by these planes called predators. Here's an exchange from a news conference this week with General David McKiernan, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Unknown Woman: How are U.S. predator strikes in Pakistan have impacted your life? Obviously they've hit some high-level insurgents, but at the same time it's upset a lot of civilians within Pakistan who'd been - protested and encouraging…
General DAVID MCKIERNAN (U.S. Army, Commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan): I'm not going to comment on predator strikes. Thank you.
INSKEEP: One reason officials are reluctant to talk is because Pakistan is critical of the predator attacks on its territory. Yet whatever its protests, Pakistan helps to coordinate some predator missions. We've been learning that from NPR's Tom Bowman, who's here to explain. Tom, good morning.
TOM BOWMAN: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: Okay. How does Pakistan work with the United States?
BOWMAN: Well, there's a lot more cooperation that we saw even six months ago. There's now a coordinator center staffed by U.S., Pakistan and Afghan military personnel. This recently opened up on the Afghan side of the border, near the Khyber Pass. This is something different - an effort by all three countries to work together, get intelligence information from the drones and other sources.
Then they all come up with targets. The drones are dispatched to strike in Afghanistan, though some say they also cross into Pakistan. At the same time there's a separate CIA program that operates out of airfields in Afghanistan and reportedly Pakistan. And U.S. officials say a key part of that program, why it's successful, is better intelligence provided by Pakistan.
INSKEEP: Tom, I realize you're dealing with a lot of different sources here and trying to piece this together from a lot of different places. But are you saying that when there are these predator strikes reported on the Pakistani side of the border, it appears that Pakistan may some advanced knowledge of what's going on?
BOWMAN: Yes, absolutely. And there's a worry in Pakistan about a political backlash - that's why they don't want to talk about it too much - of working too closely with the Americans. And there's also a real concern here, both in Pakistan and at the Pentagon, about increased public anger in Pakistan - over the drone attacks. And that's because there are more civilian casualties from these attacks, despite what the pentagon says - there's better targeting information.
INSKEEP: Well, that leads to the next question. Granting that the technology sounds very impressive, how effective have they been in finding the right person as opposed to the wrong one?
BOWMAN: Well, they've been much more effective in Pakistan, I think, and that's because it's an anti-terror mission. So, these drone attacks, and more importantly the better intelligence from the Pakistani side, has led to a near dismantling of al-Qaida leadership in Pakistan. Al-Qaida is now bringing in those with less experience to help fill the void.
Now, in Afghanistan it's a different story. The drones are helpful but it's really a different mission there. It's a counterinsurgency mission. And the main effort there is to protect the population, and that's why you're seeing the U.S. bring in 17,000 more troops to spread out and offer protection and help rebuild the country.
INSKEEP: We're talking with NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. And Tom, what have you learned about other ways that the U.S. cooperates with Pakistan's military?
BOWMAN: Well, Admiral Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, mentioned in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post this past week, that there's more training going on in Pakistan. And we've learned it's grown quite a bit over just the past several months. We understand it includes commando training; helicopter training, with the aid of night vision equipment; medical training; and help coordinating the various Pakistani military groups, such as a Frontier Corps and the Pakistan Army.
INSKEEP: Tom, thanks very much.
BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.