Pakistan’s Air War Against Taliban Grows More Precise The Pakistani military has moved away from the scorched-earth artillery and air tactics used last year against insurgents in the Bajaur tribal agency. In recent months, the air force has shifted from using Google Earth to more sophisticated images from spy planes and other surveillance aircraft, and has increased its use of laser-guided bombs. The changes reflect an effort by the Pakistani military to conduct its operations in a way that will not further alienate the population by increasing civilian casualties and destroying property. But they are also dictated by necessity as the military takes its campaign into areas where it is reluctant to commit ground troops, particularly in the rugged terrain of Waziristan, where it had suffered heavy losses. Military analysts say the airstrikes alone, no matter how precise, cannot ultimately substitute for ground forces or for better counterinsurgency training, something Pakistan has been reluctant to accept from the United States. But they say the airstrikes have become a valuable tool for Pakistan in fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda in sometimes inaccessible terrain. Since May, F-16 multirole fighter jets, the Pakistani military’s aerial workhorse, have flown more than 300 combat missions against militants in the Swat Valley and more than 100 missions in South Waziristan, attacking mountain hide-outs, training centers and ammunition depots, Pakistani military officials said. In conjunction with infantry fire, artillery barrages and helicopter gunship attacks, military officials say, the air combat missions have reinvigorated the military campaign in Swat and put increasing pressure on the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, in South Waziristan. Interviews with Pakistani fighter pilots and senior commanders offered a rare window into this other air war — a much larger but less heralded campaign that runs parallel to the three dozen secret missile strikes carried out this year by Central Intelligence Agency drones in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas. The air force’s new tools and tactics have several sources. The air force has without fanfare accepted some American assistance, like sophisticated surveillance equipment and high-grade images. But sensitive to anti-American fervor in the country, Pakistani officials have refused most outside aid, developing a small corps of ground spotters largely on their own, and occasionally tapping the Internet for online assistance. Pakistani officials are urging the Obama administration to lease Pakistan upgraded F-16s, until its own new fighters are delivered in the next year or two. This would allow Pakistani pilots to fly night missions, impossible with their current aircraft. Pakistan has argued that it needs the more advanced versions of the F-16 not only to enhance its capacity against its traditional enemy to the east, India, but also to continue to battle the Taliban insurgency. In the past, American officials raised concerns that Pakistan’s troop deployments and arms purchases seemed geared mainly to bolstering its ability to fight India, rather than the Islamic militants the United States saw as a greater threat. “Of course, there is a real threat from India,” Air Chief Marshal Rao Qamar Suleman, Pakistan’s air force chief of staff, said in an interview at his headquarters here. “But right now we have to tackle the threat from the militants.” Nearly every day in the past few months, Pakistani warplanes have pummeled militant targets in the contested Swat Valley and South Waziristan. The campaigns are a big change from operations in Bajaur last fall. “The biggest handicap we had in Bajaur was that we didn’t have good imagery,” Air Chief Marshal Qamar said. “We didn’t have good target descriptions. We did not know the area. We were forced to use Google Earth. “I didn’t want to face a similar situation in Swat,” he said. In advance of the Swat campaign, the air force equipped about 10 F-16s with high-resolution, infrared sensors, provided by the United States, to conduct detailed reconnaissance of the entire valley. The United States has also resumed secret drone flights performing military surveillance in the tribal areas, to provide Pakistani commanders with a wide array of videos and other information on militants, according to American officials. In most cases, officials said, the Pakistani Army provides target information to the air force, which confirms the locations on newly detailed maps. Identifying high-value targets through the use of army spotters or, in some cases, a new, small group of specially trained air force spotters, the air force was able to increase its use of laser-guided bombs to 80 percent of munitions used in Swat, from about 40 percent in Bajaur, Air Chief Marshal Qamar said. Another change was the mass evacuation of civilians. About two million people were displaced, sometimes with only a few hours’ notice, as part of an effort to get civilians out of conflict areas to reduce their casualties. Some American officials voice skepticism about the Pakistani claims of success. “We don’t have access to battle-damage assessment or the information on the actual strike execution, so we cannot make a qualitative comparison of what the intended effect was versus the actual effect,” said an American adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, to avoid jeopardizing his job. Officials of human rights organizations say the military has not been able to eliminate all civilian casualties from airstrikes and ground fire, but they agree that the numbers are down. “Certainly, the level of civilian casualties in this phase of the conflict has been lower than in previous operations in the tribal areas,” said Ali Dayan Hasan, senior South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, based in Lahore, Pakistan. To be sure, the air force still operates under limitations. Because the F-16s are equipped to fly only during the day, the militants move and conduct operations at night. Indeed, not one of the 21 main militant leaders in Swat has been killed or captured, Pakistani officials acknowledge. In addition, the Pakistani jets cannot be refueled in midair, as American fighter jets can, limiting how long they can remain over a target area. In South Waziristan, as the army mulls a ground war, the air force continues to attack militants’ hide-outs and training camps as well as storage caves and tunnels with 500-pound and 2,000-pound bombs. “We’re still developing our plans for South Waziristan,” Air Chief Marshal Qamar said. “We are preparing to ramp up. I think Baitullah Mehsud is getting the message, and the message is, if he keeps doing these things, we’ll hit him.” http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/30/world/asia/30pstan.html?_r=1&hp GOOGLE EARTH???????