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'Beast of Kandahar' spies over Afghanistan

New drones launched by the US will be a boon to ground operations but may expose an uncomfortable relationship between Pakistan and Taliban factions.

LAHORE // The United States' deployment of a new-generation stealth pilotless drone, armed with cutting-edge spying technology, could boost Pakistan's war against militant insurgents, but expose its relationships with Afghan Taliban factions based on its territory, said defence and political analysts. The US Air Force (USAF) and Lockheed Martin, a leading developer of remotely piloted planes, or drones, this month acknowledged the deployment over Afghanistan of the RQ-170, a new radar-evading drone that has been dubbed the "Beast of Kandahar".

The USAF had also announced it would deploy new "eyes in the sky" technology, called "Gorgon Stare", on its existing fleet of MQ-9 Reaper drones. The initial batch of the new spying weapon, to be fielded by May, would send up to 10 video streams simultaneously to as many different US combat commanders on the ground. Later models scheduled to arrive by October would handle up to 30 video streams and subsequent versions would provide up to 65 streams.

The enhanced deployment of pilotless planes comes ahead of the deployment of 30,000 additional US troops in Afghanistan, and amid increased US pressure on Pakistan to launch a military operation against Afghan Taliban based in the tribal agency of North Waziristan. Residents of the tribal agency said the US has in recent weeks vastly increased its drone-based surveillance of the region. "It used to be that when three drones were in the air over North Waziristan, it used to signify that an attack was forthcoming, and people would be scared of being hit," said Haji Pazir Gul, a journalist based in Miranshah, administrative headquarters of North Waziristan.

"Now there are four or five drones in the sky all the time, and sometimes as many as six." Yesterday, intelligence officials said a suspected US missile strike killed three people in North Waziristan. Two intelligence officials said the strike also wounded two people. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorised to speak to media on the record. Air force pilots at bases in the US operate the drones, notably from the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, from where the new RQ-170 and service fleet of Predator drones are currently operated.

North Waziristan is known to be the base of operations for the so-called Haqqani Network, a Taliban faction that has proven among the most dangerous opponents of Nato forces deployed in Afghanistan. However, political analysts said that Pakistani security forces have avoided confrontation with Jalaluddin Haqqani, the faction's leader and a former chief of staff of the Taliban, because he has worked to ensure that militant commanders of the Wazir tribe did not join an insurgency in neighbouring South Waziristan agency.

"We see no threat from Haqqani because he doesn't attack us, but the fact is that Haqqani and his allies are on our territory, in places out of the state's control. "That is why there is so much contradiction in our policy," said Khaled Ahmed, a newspaper editor and author of Sectarian Wars, a forthcoming book. Pakistani forces in October launched a military operation against insurgents of the Mehsud tribe, rivals to the Wazir, to retake control of territory lost in 2007, and are currently mopping up the last pockets of resistance, according to army spokesmen.

However, the political analysts said circumstantial evidence strongly suggested bilateral military operations with the US in Pakistani territory. "The drones operate with the knowledge and approval of the Pakistani military, sometimes even with joint intelligence and co-ordination," said Najam Sethi, editor of The Friday Times, an English language weekly newspaper. "Since the Pakistanis formally deny and disapprove of the use of drones in Fata [the Federally Administered Tribal Areas], it is not possible for them to admit joint drone operations with the Americans."

Defence analysts said the US drones could play an aerial support role similar to conventional warplanes, but with the advantage of not putting Pakistan Air Force planes at risk from the limited number of vintage small-calibre anti-aircraft guns in militant hands. They said that, in the Pakistani tribal region battlefield context, aerial power, whether warplane or drone, could be used to "soften" fortified mountaintop militant positions to reduce resistance to an attack "charge" by ground troops.

"Air power has the inherent limitation of requiring a clear line of attack if it is to hit a target. However, because the drone is pilotless, it can take more risks than a piloted plane, because there is no situation of live opponent against live opponent," said Alam Zeb, a former director of the Pakistani army's air defences. Sethi, who was also a national security adviser to a Pakistani president, said the enhanced surveillance capacity of the US drones would also be used to provide evidence of Taliban activity around Quetta, capital of the western Pakistan province of Balochistan.

The US has said Mullah Mohammed Omar, chief of the Afghan Taliban, and his associates had taken covert refuge in the area, and was running a government-in-exile, the so-called Quetta shura, or council, from there. Ahmed Mukhtar, the Pakistani defence minister, recently for the first time admitted to the presence of the Quetta shura, but provided no further details except to say that unspecified action had been taken to ensure it did not pose a threat to Pakistan.

thussain@thenational.ae * with additional reporting by the Associated Press

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