By Pam Benson
The Obama administration is talking with the Pakistanis about possible changes in the way the U.S. conducts air strikes against terrorists in Pakistan, including providing Pakistan advance notice of attacks, modifying the targets and changing how targets are determined, according to a senior U.S. official who is involved in intelligence matters.
The official, who would not speak for attribution because of the sensitivity of the issues, said the White House is making a serious mistake by putting the options on the table for the Pakistanis to seize.
"The big mistake was the administration - I did try to warn them - that once you put it on the table, it will only get worse," the official said. "Sure enough, once they put it on the table, (Pakistan) grabbed it, and they've run with it and now it's the centerpiece of their negotiations."
The offer to put the issue on the table reportedly was made earlier this year by CIA Director David Petraeus in a meeting with the head of Pakistani intelligence, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha.
"The director and I have had serious go-rounds about this particular issue before he did it, and he did it anyway. And now I think we're paying the price," the senior U.S. official said.
The story on what was referred to as U.S. concessions to Pakistan was first reported by the Associated Press.
Another U.S. official who is not authorized to speak on the record denied any concessions were made.
"No such concessions were offered to Pasha," said the official, who would not answer questions about whether changes in the drone program have been discussed.
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters earlier this week that he would not discuss the specifics of U.S.-Pakistan counterterrorism programs, but said the story "did not represent the ongoing nature of the dialogue we have with the Pakistanis."
The missile strikes by CIA-operated unmanned aircraft has irked Pakistani officials who publicly say the country's sovereignty is being violated and there are too many civilian casualties associated with the attacks. The U.S. rejects the accusations.
"If the main concern is sovereignty, the Pakistanis might want to deal with the al Qaeda foreigners who are living within their borders and planning attacks on Pakistan, their neighbors and the West," said the second U.S. official.
The Pakistani government has been reassessing its relationship with Washington following a number of high-profile incidents last year, particularly the U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, of which the Pakistanis had no prior knowledge, and the accidental killing of Pakistani soldiers operating along the Afghanistan border by U.S. forces. One of the key debates is on the future of the drone program.
The potential modifications in the drone program might not be as bad for the United States as some might suggest. Although a former senior U.S. intelligence official who is not privy to the specifics of the discussions is a bit nervous about what is being reported in the media, he suggests there's a lot we don't know.
"I was struck by the language which said inform rather than approve. There is a very large difference," the former official said. "And then the question is when you say inform, is it simultaneously? An hour before? A day before?"
In addition, the former official raised the question about whether there would be an understanding with the Pakistanis that the United States still could act unilaterally if need be.
That question appeared to be answered by a senior Defense Department official during congressional testimony this week.
Michael Sheehan, the assistant secretary for special operations, did not address the drone question specifically, but said the United States and Pakistan would try to work as best they can to resolve their differences. But he added that ultimately, "the president is going to do what he has to do unilaterally. And he will always protect that prerogative, to protect the security of the American people and our interest."
In the meantime, drone operations continue in Pakistan at a noticeably lesser rate than previous years. The U.S. official insisted,"The United States is conducting, and will continue to conduct, the counterterrorism operations it needs to protect the U.S. and its interests."
With fewer strikes in the tribal regions where al Qaeda hides out, and turmoil not only in the U.S.-Pakistani relationship but within the Pakistani government itself, some worry al Qaeda and other extremists will take advantage of the situation.
The senior U.S. official said a convergence of problems gives al Qaeda room to maneuver:
"The Pakistanis are less interested in operating in the tribal areas. That gives (al Qaeda) breathing space," the official said. "The tempo - I don't care what they tell you - the tempo has changed on airstrikes. That has given them some breathing space. And you know one thing we've learned, you give them an inch, they will take six miles. They are very adaptive and very aggressive and very persistent."
Sheehan agreed that al Qaeda is highly adaptive - which is why the U.S. and Pakistan have to find a way to work through the difficult problems.
"It's so troubling and complex, but nevertheless, they are there," said Sheehan. "They are sitting on top of our adversary and we're just going to have to work through this issue indefinitely, and we're going to have ups and a lot of downs, unfortunately, in the months ahead."
As the senior U.S. official put it, "We have good day, bad days and terrible days. This is the way we have a relationship with Pakistan. And sometimes that can all happen in the same day."
The bumpy road ahead was also reflected by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein who told CNN she has no confidence that the relationship with Pakistan will smooth out any time soon. The California Democrat will join her committee vice chairman and the ranking members of the House Intelligence Committee on an upcoming visit to Pakistan to demonstrate the importance of the nations' relationship and to re-enforce their shared national security objectives.