WASHINGTON — The CIA passed up a chance last year to kill Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of an anti-American insurgent network in Pakistan that is closely linked to al-Qaida and the Afghan Taliban, when it chose not to fire a missile at him from a Predator drone because women and children were nearby, U.S. and Pakistani officials say.
The incident was one of at least three occasions in the past six months when a militant was identified on video and a shot was available, but U.S. officials decided not to fire in an effort to avoid civilian casualties, said a senior Pakistani official familiar with the drone program.
Killing civilians in drone attacks on insurgents in Pakistan's tribal regions has generated a powerful anti-American backlash across the country. The anger has been a severe public relations problem for both the Obama administration and the government of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, who subscribe to a delicate arrangement under which Pakistan authorities help with intelligence information for the strikes but officially deny involvement.
The Pakistani official, who spoke on condition he not be named, said allowing high-value targets to escape reflected a decision by the U.S. since August to use greater caution in the drone strikes. A strike Aug. 22 destroyed a militant hideout in North Waziristan, killing 13 members of the Afghan Taliban but also four women and three children who were living among them, according to Pakistani intelligence officials.
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The U.S. officials said there has been no policy change and say there always have been occasions when the CIA decides not to fire at a target in the midst of civilians. Those officials would confirm only the Haqqani incident. But they cited two further occasions in the past year when missiles that had already been fired from drones were diverted off target to avoid killing civilians. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing a classified program.
Another factor driving the change, according to a former CIA official, is that the U.S. can afford to forego an opportunity to kill a senior militant because intelligence and technology improvements to drone operations give the CIA confidence it will get the chance for a clearer shot.