American officials reached a quiet understanding with Pakistan’s leader last month to intensify secret strikes against suspected terrorists by unmanned aircraft launched inside Pakistan, senior officials in both governments say. But the prospect of changes in Pakistan’s government has the Bush administration worried that the new operations could be curtailed.
Among other things, the new arrangements allowed an increase in the number and scope of patrols and strikes by armed Predator surveillance aircraft launched from a secret base inside Pakistan — a far more aggressive strategy to attack al-Qaida and the Taliban.
But since opposition parties emerged victorious from the 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 Qaida and Taliban fighters in the areas near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. The change, described by senior American and Pakistani officials who would not speak for attribution because the program is classified, allows American military commanders greater leeway to choose from what one official who participated in the debate called “a Chinese menu” of attack options.
Instead of having to confirm the identity of a suspected militant leader before attacking, this shift allowed American operators to strike convoys that bear the characteristics of Qaida 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 CIA base in Pakistan whose existence was described by American and Pakistani officials who had previously kept it secret to avoid embarrassing President Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf, whose party lost in this week’s election by margins that surprised American officials, has been accused by political rivals of being too close to the United States.
The base in Pakistan is home to a handful of Predators — unmanned aircraft that are controlled from the United States.