U.S. and Pakistan negotiate over drones

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

LISA MULLINS: One focus of the fight against terrorism is Pakistan, specifically the area along its western border where Taliban militants hold sway. The Pakistani army is in the middle of a military offensive against those militants. The violence has caused an estimated 800,000 Pakistanis civilians to flee the region. The United States has also targeted the militants in that part of Pakistan. Often that involves launching missiles from unmanned aircraft known as drones or predators. Pakistan has protested. It says the tactic violates its sovereignty. And now the U.S. military may be about to share control of these unmanned aircraft with the Pakistanis. Julian Barnes is Pentagon Correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. He's been looking into the story.

JULIAN BARNES: What the United States wants to do is help the Pakistanis reduce the threat from the Taliban and other militants in the border region. And one way to do that but still get around Pakistani concerns about having U.S. forces on the ground in Pakistan is to give the Pakistanis control or partial control over the predators. How this would work is Pakistani officers sitting beside U.S. officers will tell them where to send the predators, what to look at and if they find a potential suspected militant, when to pull the trigger.

MULLINS: So why doesn't the United States then simply allow the Pakistani authorities, military officials, the Pakistani pilot to pilot the drone himself or herself?

BARNES: Well, the U.S. doesn't want to give the predators to the Pakistanis. They want to make sure that these predators are used to target militants in the border region. They don't want Pakistan to have its own predators and, you know, use them in Kashmir or use them on the border with India.

MULLINS: So this is their way of safeguarding that to see that if a shot is fired, it's fired at a member of the Taliban, presumably?

BARNES: Yeah, it's essentially a compromise. It's giving the Pakistanis a lot of control over the predators, but making sure that they're focused on what the U.S. sees as the real threat.

MULLINS: So how is that going to help the situation on the ground because there are those critics who say the U.S. is using these drones over Pakistan at great cost to the United States' reputation. The Pakistanis do not like them in part because there have been so many civilian casualties. So how does Islamabad reconcile the fact that they will be along side Americans using, commanding these drones together?

BARNES: Well, that's a really important question and that is a big reason why the Pakistanis have not allowed any missiles yet to be fired from these drones. They are very concerned about the casualties. However, the thought is with these operations when the Pakistanis pick the targets they would be able to defend them to their public and say, "Listen, this is an important target. It was not a civilian target. It was a military target and we are protecting our people, we're protecting our own military."

MULLINS: And we're going to be hearing in just a minute about the extensive hold of the Taliban over this region. But you're saying that this joint effort with the predator drones will have the potential of holding the Taliban back?

BARNES: That's what several senior military officers said to me. That is what they're trying to show the Pakistani military, that this really has the promise of quickly weakening the leadership of those militant groups that are taking more and more territory in Pakistan.

MULLINS: Is there reason to believe that?

BARNES: The predator strikes in Iraq proved very important. They were an important part of the success in the surge, maybe not always got the attention of some of the other methods the U.S. used. So it is possible to overstate the effectiveness of this, but there's reason to believe that this is a program that should be tried.

MULLINS: All right, Julian Barnes, Pentagon Correspondent for the L.A. Times. Thank you.

BARNES: Thank you.