WASHINGTON--In a clear sign of Pakistan's deepening mistrust of the United States, Islamabad has told the Obama administration to reduce the number of U.S. troops in the country and has moved to close three military intelligence liaison centers, setting back American efforts to eliminate insurgent sanctuaries in largely lawless areas bordering Afghanistan, U.S. officials said.
The liaison centers, also known as intelligence fusion cells, in Quetta and Peshawar are the main conduits for the United States to share satellite imagery, target data and other intelligence with Pakistani ground forces conducting operations against militants, including Taliban fighters who slip into Afghanistan to attack U.S. and allied forces.
U.S. special operations units have relied on the three facilities, two in Peshawar and one in Quetta, to help coordinate operations on both sides of the border, senior U.S. officials said. The U.S. units are now being withdrawn from all three sites, the officials said, and the centers are being closed.
It wasn't immediately clear whether the closings are permanent. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, flew to Pakistan Thursday to meet with Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, head of the Pakistani army. A Pentagon official said the two will probably discuss Pakistan's demands for a smaller U.S. military presence.
The closingss, which have not been publicly announced, remove U.S. advisers from the front lines of the war against militant groups in Pakistan. U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus spearheaded the effort to increase the U.S. presence in the border areas two years ago out of frustration with Pakistan's failure to control the militants.
The collapse of the effort will probably hinder the Obama administration's efforts to gradually push Pakistan toward conducting ground operations against insurgent strongholds in North Waziristan and elsewhere, U.S. officials said.
The Pakistani decision has not affected the CIA's ability to launch missiles from drone aircraft in northwest Pakistan. Those flights, which the CIA has never publicly acknowledged, receive assistance from Pakistan through intelligence channels separate from the fusion centers, current and former officials said.
Closing the three centers, and a recent written demand by Pakistan to reduce the number of U.S. military personnel in the country from about 200, signals mounting anger in Pakistan over a series of incidents.
In January, Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor, shot and killed two men in Lahore who he said were attempting to rob him. He was arrested on charges of murder but was released and left the country in mid-March, prompting violent protests in several cities.
Soon after, Pakistan ordered several dozen U.S. special operations trainers to leave the country in what U.S. officials believe was retaliation for the Davis case, according to a senior U.S. military officer.
Then, on May 2, five U.S. helicopters secretly entered Pakistani airspace and a team of U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden and four others at a compound in Abbottabad, a military garrison town near the capital, Islamabad. The raid deeply embarrassed Pakistan's military and inflamed anti-U.S. sentiment across the country.
The two intelligence fusion centers in Peshawar were set up in 2009, one with the Pakistani army's 11th Corps and the other with the paramilitary Frontier Corps, both of which have their headquarters in the city, which is the capital of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.
The third fusion cell was opened last year at the Pakistani army's 12th Corps headquarters in Quetta, a city long used by Taliban fighters to mount attacks in Afghanistan's southern provinces. U.S. troops have staffed the Quetta facility only intermittently, U.S. officials said.
The reductions in U.S. personnel have slowed the training of the Frontier Corps, a force that American officials had hoped could help halt infiltration of Taliban and other militants into Afghanistan, a senior U.S. military officer said.
The intelligence fusion cell in Quetta was not nearly as active as the centers in Peshawar, current and former U.S. officials said. Pakistan has long resisted pressure to intensify operations against Taliban militants in Quetta. The city, capital of Baluchistan, is outside the tribal area, which explains Pakistan's reluctance to permit a permanent U.S. military presence, a U.S. official said.
Despite the tensions, Pakistani authorities have agreed to allow a CIA team to inspect the compound where bin Laden was killed, according to a U.S. official. The Pakistanis have signaled that they will allow U.S. intelligence analysts to examine documents and other material that Pakistani authorities found at the site.
A U.S. official briefed on intelligence matters said the many documents and electronic data that the SEALs seized at the compound have sparked dozens of intelligence investigations and have produced new insights on schisms among al-Qaida leaders.