Pakistan’s Air Force Chief Denies China Helped Military Acquire Armed Drones

Reports that China helped Pakistan's military acquire armed drones are wrong, according to the head of the Pakistani air force, who said engineers in his nation developed the technology on their own and Washington should increase coordination with Islamabad to target and eliminate al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. In an exclusive interview with The Washington Times, Air Chief Marshal Sohail Aman suggested that the acrimony that surrounded the Obama administration's yearslong campaign of clandestine drone strikes in Pakistan may finally be over now that Islamabad has its own fleet of the missile-equipped unmanned aircraft. Pakistani forces made headlines three weeks ago with their first lethal drone strike on Islamic militants. Although the development raised eyebrows and prompted unease in some U.S. national security circles, Mr. Aman said he still has "not got too many vibes yet" from Washington. "No big concerns have come in," he said, although the prospect of a locally driven drone war over Pakistan's infamous Federally Administered Tribal Areas now looms as Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif prepares to visit President Obama at The White House this month. Mr. Aman, who is visiting his American counterparts in Washington this week, did not explicitly call for the U.S. defense and intelligence communities to provide targeting information for Pakistani drone strikes. But he stressed that the aggressive scope of his nation's 16-month-old campaign against militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas should erase any questions about Islamabad's viability as a counterterrorism partner. "It's a question of trust," he said. "We have to have 110 percent." He asserted that cooperation between Pakistan and the U.S. is stronger now than it has been at any other time since May 2011. Communications collapsed because U.S. Special Forces gave no warning to Islamabad before carrying out the secret helicopter and commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan. Although the Obama administration kept providing counterterrorism funds to Pakistan's military in 2012, the relationship got its biggest boost in June 2014 when Mr. Sharif announced the onset of what has since become a massive campaign to destroy extremist strongholds in the North Waziristan corner of the nation's border with Afghanistan. Mr. Aman said the campaign, which deployed some 175,000 Pakistani troops to the border, has killed roughly 3,000 militants and "dislodged" others from areas known to be hideouts for the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda. "When you do campaigns together, when you have shared objectives, then you strategize together and you build each other's capacities," he said. "I think the [U.S.] has been a great supporter and great help of the precision engagement that we have. The surveillance capability that we have had to make these operations go couldn't have been possible without the [U.S.] support." Though mistrust over the bin Laden raid lingers, Mr. Aman said it should not. He said there should be no question about Pakistan's commitment to targeting al Qaeda terrorists, including bin Laden successor Ayman al-Zawahri. "If there are people like this and we have an idea of where they are, we would not spare them for a day," he said. "None of us can say anything about where this guy is. He could be anywhere. The issue is that if there is any intelligence information about any of these players, it should be shared and we should take action on it." Coalition Support Fund At the same time, he said, Pakistan's military operations are restrained from crossing into Afghanistan, where intelligence sources say al-Zawahri is likely holed up and where a dwindling number of U.S. troops are trying to bolster Afghan Security Forces in their fight against Islamic militants, namely the Afghan Taliban. Mr. Aman said Pakistan's restraint is rooted in Islamabad's respect for Afghan sovereignty. But he acknowledged that militants continue to move across the border and said Pakistani forces would be well-served if Washington would provide certain "radar" to better track such movement. Although Pakistani officials feel strongly that they are far better suited than the U.S. to glean accurate human-sourced targeting information for strikes on militants, it is Americans who possess signals intelligence capabilities that no one else has. What remains to be seen is how willing U.S. officials are to share such intelligence with anyone, let alone their Pakistani counterparts. Mr. Aman stressed how difficult it can be to find terrorists once they have slipped past detection on the Afghan side. He pointed to the case of Maulana Fazlullah, leader of the Pakistani Taliban. Pakistan's military has been asking the U.S. for the past year to target Fazlullah, Mr. Aman said. "They haven't been able to find him," he said. "Intelligence sources tell that he's in Afghanistan. He must have escaped 10 strikes." Mr. Aman voiced frustration that the Obama administration has sent mixed signals about whether the U.S. will continue to provide counterterrorism funding for Pakistan. Pakistani officials say the Obama administration has released roughly $3.2 billion to Pakistan's military through Coalition Support Fund reimbursements since late 2012. The latest $375 million arrived in recent weeks. There has long been speculation that Washington will cut the funding once the Coalition Support Fund expires at the end of next year. The State Department offered assurances about the money, but National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice gave a different impression during a visit to Islamabad last month. Officials close to Ms. Rice reportedly told Pakistani journalists that the support would be cut sooner if Islamabad does not make a more concerted effort to attack the Haqqani network — the group responsible for some of deadliest violence in Afghanistan in recent years. Mr. Aman said the threat of such conditional funding is not productive. "This is not child's play going on. We're talking about serious business," he said. "If there's somebody that they think should be taken out, they should tell us and we'll take them out. We have done it before, and we will do it again." He also vowed that Pakistan's military campaign of the past 16 months "has been absolutely indiscriminate." 'Building Afghan capacity' Mr. Aman voiced concern that Pakistan will be left in the lurch when U.S. forces fully withdraw from Afghanistan. He said it should be an impetus for expanded coordination between Washington and Islamabad. The U.S. must not "let the things go out of control" in Afghanistan, he said. "All those sanctuaries which are there for the Taliban those things have to be monitored carefully and put to rest. "This responsibility, eventually, a large portion of it will reside with Pakistan," Mr. Aman said. He suggested that Pakistani officials are frustrated that Washington has turned to India rather than the Pakistani military to train Afghan forces. "For the last five years, we have been telling the Afghan government and our American counterparts that we need to participate in building Afghan capacity," he said. "We've gotten no response. "We would like to participate and build their capacity and train them, but somehow politically this was never permitted. Yes, the Americans have been training them, but then a large portion of their training went out to the Indians," he said. "To me, that looks pretty unnatural, culturally. "We were better-suited to train them," Mr. Aman said. He sought to downplay Islamabad's use of an armed drone, despite the fact that Pakistan has effectively entered a small club of nations known to be flying such aircraft. The others are the U.S., Britain, Israel, China, Russia and likely Iran. "This is not a huge, big technology," he said, noting the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex's development over the years of its own JF-17 Thunder fighter jets and the nation's more clandestine but equally successful development of nuclear weapons during the 1990s. When asked specifically about media reports that the Pakistani drones had Chinese origins, he said: "That doesn't make any sense. "It's such a basic technology," he said. "Our industry is very capable of doing all these things." © Copyright 2015 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
Coalition Support Funds
Date Published: 
Tuesday, October 6, 2015
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