Reports this week by The National Journal and The Washington Post further highlight the direct role that the Pakistani government—or at least portions of it—have played in facilitating the U.S. drone campaign in Pakistan, which the U.S. is facing growing criticism over.
The National Journal reported on Wednesday that under the George W. Bush and Pervez Musharraf administrations, a secret protocol was put in place that defines the role the Pakistani military and intelligence services play in approving and authorizing the strikes. The report mainly relies on the accounts from unnamed former and current Pakistani and American officials.
This report was followed hours later by a blockbuster piece from The Washington Post that further details the level of cooperation between the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and various parts of the Pakistan government—in particular, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)—in carrying out the drone strikes.
The Wapo report, which covers the period from 2007-2011 and is based on “top-secret CIA documents and Pakistani diplomatic memos” obtained by the newspaper, is chock-full of interesting revelations and well worth a full read. Much of the article focuses on how the CIA provides (or at least provided) Pakistani diplomats and intelligence and security officials with thorough and frequent briefings on the drone program, including after action reports.
Two things about these reports stick out as particularly noteworthy.
The first is the timing of the reports as well as the sources used. The reports appear as Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has intensified his pressure on the U.S. to halt drone strikes in his country. Opposition to drone strikes has been a frequent theme of Sharif’s domestic speeches since he was campaigning for the premiership. However, Sharif seemed to increase the profile of the issue last month when he sharply denounced the U.S. drone campaign in his speech to the UN General Assembly.
Sharif’s public diplomacy effort has continued this week during his visit to Washington. Sharif reportedly raised the issue of drones with President Obama during a White House meeting on Wednesday, and also returned to theme during a speech at a local think tank. Speaking at the DC-based U.S. Institute for Peace, Sharif said that the drone strikes “have deeply disturbed and agitated our people. This issue has become a major irritant in our bilateral relationship as well. I will, therefore, stress the need for an end to drone attacks.”
The fact that these new articles detailing Pakistan’s role in the drone campaign were published during Sharif’s visit to DC is almost certainly not a coincidence. While it’s obvious that the Obama administration has a clear motive for leaking this information during Sharif’s visit, both articles, as noted above, rely partially on the accounts of Pakistani leaders as well as Pakistani documents. It therefore seems that some parts of the Pakistani government, likely acting with the U.S. government, are seeking to embarrass Sharif and undermine his campaign to end U.S. drone strikes.
It’s worth pointing out that The National Journal article says that Pakistani military and intelligence officials have tried to persuade the U.S. to keep the Pakistani civilian government in the dark about the drone campaign and the nature of Pakistani involvement in it. U.S. officials, according to both reports, have refused to acquiesce to this demand, however, and have insisted on briefing Pakistani civilian leaders.
Perhaps more interesting is that the reports, particularly the Wapo one, further highlight just how extensively some parts of the Pakistani government have been involved in directing the drone campaign. The conventional narrative on the issue usually states Islamabad has given tacit approval to the U.S. to carry out drone strikes in the country.
But the Wapo report is further evidence that this grossly understates the nature of Pakistan’s involvement in the program. As the article notes in passing, the CIA documents mention that certain drone strikes were carried out at the behest of the Pakistani government. In other words, the Pakistani government chose the targets of the strikes while the U.S. government simply implemented their orders.
This is not the first time this information has been reported, though it continues to get overlooked in most accounts (especially criticisms) of U.S. drone strikes. For example, after reviewing internal U.S. intelligence documents on drone strikes in Pakistan, McClatchy Newspapers published a lengthy article in April of this year detailing how Pakistan’s ISI ordered some of the strikes.
“The documents show that while the ISI helped the CIA target al Qaida, the United States used drone strikes to aid the Pakistani military in its battle against the Taliban Movement of Pakistan, or TTP,” the report said. “The partnership was so extensive during the Bush administration that the Pakistani intelligence agency selected its own targets for drone strikes.”
Although more speculative, some non-targets of the U.S. drone campaign also suggest the ISI holds large sway in directing the U.S. drone strikes. For example, it has long been known that the core Taliban leadership—including Mullah Omar—are hiding out in Quetta, Pakistan. And yet, few, if any, U.S. drone strikes or operations to detain these figures have been carried out. This is almost certainly because the ISI and Pakistani Army has ruled that these figures—with which it has long-standing ties—remain off-limits for U.S. operations. As a result, the Quetta Taliban have been free to direct the insurgency in Afghanistan in relative comfort and have little incentive to not wait out NATO in Afghanistan.
Nor is Pakistan’s government the only one that seems to use U.S. drone strikes in its country to advance its own goals. Accounts of U.S. counterterrorism in Yemen suggest that Yemeni officials have at times used U.S. drones to eliminate domestic political opponents. Often times, according to these reports, the U.S. plays this role unwittingly as the Yemeni officials misidentify their rivals as members of al-Qaeda’s branch in that country.
This all seems relevant in the context of mounting international criticism of U.S. drone strikes, including a new Amnesty International report that concludes that U.S. drone strikes might constitute war crimes. Claiming that drone strikes constitute a war crime seems excessive to me. However, whatever criticisms or charges the U.S. does face over its use of drones should be equally shared by the Pakistan government.
Zachary Keck is Associate Editor of The Diplomat. He can be found on Twitter @ZacharyKeck.