ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan’s top military leader not only tacitly agreed to the controversial drone campaign against militants, in 2008 he asked Washington for “continuous Predator coverage” over tribal areas, according to recently released U.S. State Department cables.
According to a fresh batch of cables released by WikiLeaks, Pakistan’s chief of army staff General Ashfaq Kayani asked Admiral William J. Fallon, then commander of U.S. Central Command, for increased surveillance and round-the-clock Predator coverage over North and South Waziristan, strongholds for Taliban militants.
“Referring to the situation in Waziristan,” the February 11, 2008 cable says, “Kayani asked if Fallon could assist in providing continuous Predator coverage of the conflict area.”
Predators are the workhorses of the United States’ unacknowledged remotely-piloted drone campaign in northwest Pakistan. Hundreds of militants and civilians have been killed, fuelling anti-American sentiment in Pakistan because the flights are seen as a violation of its sovereignty.
In the cable, released in partnership with Pakistan’s Dawn Newspaper, and India’s The Hindu and NDTV, Fallon “regretted that he did not have the assets to support this request.”
But he offered U.S. personnel to aid Pakistan in command and control for its attack aircraft. Kayani said this offer would “not be politically acceptable.”
In a statement released on Friday, the Pakistan Army denied the contents of the cable.
“In the past, there has only been sharing of technical intelligence in some areas,” the statement said. “No armed drone attack support has ever been asked for our operations which have been conducted using own resources.”
Also on Friday, two missiles fired by a drone aircraft hit a vehicle in North Waziristan on the Afghanistan border, killing at least six militants, local intelligence officials said.
There was no independent verification and militants often dispute official casualty figures.
Kayani has often publicly criticized drone strikes, with his strongest objections on March 17 when a U.S. drone strike killed at least 45 people in North Waziristan. He called the strike “unjustified and intolerable.”
Perceived violations of Pakistani sovereignty by the United States have been aggravated since the secret May 2 raid on Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden.
While the United States has generally focused on how bin Laden had been able to hide in Pakistan for six years or more, the Pakistani leadership and the military have concentrated on how U.S. special forces were able to operate with impunity inside Pakistan for more than an hour.
Pakistani journalists — many with alleged ties to the military and intelligence establishment — have also focused on the American actions, with popular talk show hosts fuelling criticism of U.S. actions.
Other cables show that in the days following the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai by Pakistani-based militants that killed at least 166 people, Kayani opposed U.S. and Pakistani civilian government efforts to send the head of Pakistan’s spy agency to India as a good will gesture.
In a November 29 meeting with Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, U.S. Charge d’Affaires Gerald Feierstein urged Pakistan to send ISI Director Shuja Ahmed Pasha to India, the cable from the same day said.
“If Pasha did not go to India, this would be seen as a bad sign that Pakistan was retreating from its promises of cooperation.”
The ISI, or Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, is Pakistan’s powerful spy agency. It has been accused of maintaining cooperation with anti-Indian and anti-Western militant groups. Pakistan denies such allegations.
Kayani, the next day, however was “non-committal” on sending Pasha to India.
“Kayani made clear he believed the GOP (government of Pakistan) had nothing to do with” the Mumbai attacks. He also criticized India’s “rush to judgment” on placing blame for the Mumbai attacks.
Additional reporting by Rebecca Conway; Editing by Ron Popeski