Diplomatic memos reveal extent of US-Pakistan drone cooperation

Although it is now widely known that the CIA and Pakistan’s ISI have cooperated on the targeting and execution of drone strikes in the tribal areas, the Washington Post has obtained files that detail the explicit nature of this relationship between late 2007 and late 2011. This includes briefings on casualty counts, maps, and before-and-after aerial photos of at least 65 strikes. The documents were likely prepared by the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, the hub of extrajudicial drone strikes. Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, is currently visiting Washington and calling for a halt to the attacks – just like previous Prime Ministers and Presidents in Islamabad.

Certainly, the extent to which briefings are evidence of full cooperation remains doubtful. The US-Pakistan “relationship” is frequently characterized by distrust and duplicity on both sides. The reality is likely a mixture of multilateralism and bilateralism at different times. For example, some documents refer to a direct Pakistani role in targeting – in 2010 one such file describes hitting a location “at the request of your government.” Another from the same year mentions a “network of locations associated with a joint CIA-ISI targeting effort.”

The documents also confirm the use of signature strikes to target groups of low-level fighters based on suspicious patterns of behavior. This practice has been in force since at least 2008, when President Bush signed off on the method. The “evidence” used in eliminating peoples of interest can appear circumstantial. For example, on Jan. 14, 2010, a group of 17 people at a suspected Taliban training camp was hit after the men were seen conducting “assassination training, sparring, push-ups and running.” The compound was apparently connecting “by vehicle” to an al-Qaeda facility that was struck three years earlier. Likewise, Miller and Woodward select two other instances where targeting was somewhat “flaky”:

On March 23, 2010, the CIA launched missiles at a “person of interest” in a suspected al-Qaeda compound. The man caught the agency’s attention after he had “held two in-car meetings, and swapped vehicles three times along the way.”

Other accounts describe militants targeted because of the extent of “deference” they were shown when arriving at a suspect site. A May 11, 2010, entry noted the likely deaths of 12 men who were “probably” involved in cross-border attacks against the U.S. military in Afghanistan.

As I’ve detailed elsewhere, targets are often selected based on the function they perform in a wider “network”. Their significance in the agency’s eyes is not always linked to an explicit combat role. This is why a “courier” could be considered a legitimate target for the CIA, even if it is doubtful that such an individual was providing a continuous combat function.

So, there is no real “new” news here – just another set of details on a program that represents the consolidation of state violence within two organizations that have little public accountability.

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