In the autumn of 2009, US President Barack Obama rounded up his foreign policy team and cadre of political advisors to determine how to move forward in Afghanistan. After months of leaks, opinion pieces and TV spots that spurred a public turf war between the Pentagon and the National Security Council, the Obama administration finally agreed to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. All of the national security players reportedly agreed in principle to the plan, but anxiety arose over two looming uncertainties: the exit strategy and Pakistan.
The worst kept secret from Foggy Bottom to Miram Shah is that the CIA continues to conduct increasingly expansive covert operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. Obama seems to favour the surgical strikes from the CIA’s Predator drones rather than a more visible US footprint such as special operations units, while CIA Director Leon Panetta has been even more enthusiastic about the effectiveness of the drone project, privately urging national security principals in the Obama administration to consider significantly increasing the frequency and scope of the programme.
But proponents of these asymmetric strikes still face a considerable hurdle in securing Islamabad’s acquiescence. Pakistan continues to lack the political capital to allow the CIA to act with impunity within its sovereign territory, with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari struggling to balance his desire to degrade Islamic militants within his country with the perceived need to hedge his bets over the future political landscape of neighbouring Afghanistan. The military establishment in Pakistan, meanwhile, still views its threat matrix through an India-centric lens—Pakistan genuinely believes, rightly or wrongly, that India continues to work aggressively against its strategic interests through bribery and espionage in Afghanistan.
Despite these reservations, US pressure on Pakistan to attack terrorist safe havens in FATA intensified after the failed Times Square bombing in May 2010, in which Pakistan-born Faisal Shahzad loaded an SUV full of explosives with the apparent intention to cause mayhem in New York City. Panetta travelled to Islamabad shortly after the botched attack to deliver a message to Zardari: if a terrorist attack like this is successful, the strategic partnership between the US and Pakistan is finished. In effect, Panetta was issuing an informal demarche to the Pakistani leadership to either conduct operations in FATA or be prepared for unilateral action by the United States.
Some backers of drone warfare in Pakistan argue that the CIA needs to have the ability to conduct operations outside of the narrowly defined ‘boxes’ that the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has mapped out. Analysis by the New America Foundation, which has looked at the drone attacks since 2004, shows that most strikes have taken place in Northern Waziristan, an area that Washington has pleaded with Zardari to increase Pakistan’s military presence in. The ISI, however, refuses to budge on Quetta in Balochistan Province, which US intelligence analysts believe is the area that shelters Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and potentially senior al-Qaeda leaders.