/ 28 January 2009

Gates: US missile strikes in Pakistan to continue

United States President Barack Obama is retaining a powerful but controversial US weapon left over from the Bush administration’s battle against terrorism: Predator missile strikes on Pakistan.

Defence Secretary Robert Gates signalled to senators on Tuesday that missile strikes will continue. He did not directly refer to the Predator hunt-and-kill drone programme, but said the US would continue to strike at al-Qaeda inside Pakistan along its border with Afghanistan.

Senior Obama administration and Capitol Hill officials said the Predator strikes are effective, and there is no plan to discontinue the programme.

The Predator attacks have strained US relations with Pakistan, which has urged Obama to halt them.

Pakistan was struck last week by missiles that killed at least 22 people. The strike was part of a continuing wave of more than 30 missile attacks since August.

In testimony on Tuesday to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gates said Obama and former president George Bush were twinned in their efforts to pursue al-Qaeda.

”Both president Bush and President Obama have made clear that we will go after al-Qaeda wherever al-Qaeda is, and we will continue to pursue them,” Gates said.

”Has that decision been transmitted to the Pakistan government?” the panel’s chairperson, Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat, asked.

”Yes, sir,” Gates responded.

The US rarely acknowledges such missile strikes, at least some of which are carried out with Predator drones, used by the Pentagon and CIA to hunt down and attack terrorists.

A senior Obama administration official told the Associated Press that the Predator programme would remain, saying simply: ”It works.” The comments were made on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorised to discuss the programme publicly.

At the Congress, a senior official added: ”The most accurate way of characterising the policy is no operational policies have been changed at this point.”
The official also spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the press.

At the Pentagon, spokesperson Bryan Whitman said this week that the military has no plan to drop the Predator programme, which he called ”a premium platform” and in ”high demand”.

Last week, Pakistan said civilians were killed along with eight suspected foreign militants, including an Egyptian al-Qaeda operative, in twin strikes in the Waziristan region, long suspected as al-Qaeda’s haven in Pakistan.

The CIA expects that every Predator strike will generate claims that civilians have been killed. A recently retired US intelligence official said attempts to verify the claims with human sources on the ground usually take up to three days.

Predators operated remotely by the military fire missiles on 20% to 30% of their missions, a senior defence official told the Associated Press. The rest of the time US drones provide surveillance and other intelligence-gathering help, the official said.

Roger W Cressey, a counterterror official in the Clinton and Bush administrations, said Obama’s team also is seeking a broader strategy for combating al-Qaeda in Pakistan. That would include getting better intelligence to isolate terrorists to attack to reduce civilian casualties, he said. It could also rely more heavily on Pakistani officials who may now be more aggressive against al-Qaeda than in the past.

For now, Cressey said, the Obama administration should continue with the Predator strikes on areas of Pakistan that he said al-Qaeda was using to stage attacks on US forces in Afghanistan and to plan attacks on US interests outside the region.

”You’ve got to do it for the short-term tactical urgency,” Cressey said. ”But you can’t stop there, and that’s what the administration is going to work on.”

The Pentagon has stepped up the number of its around-the-clock Predator and other unmanned combat air patrols over Iraq and Afghanistan battlefronts from 24 in May last year to 33 now, according to senior defence officials.

Those numbers do not include the unmanned systems being operated by the CIA, which is believed to be responsible for most of the missile strikes in Pakistan. — Sapa-AP