The Dronification of State Violence, Part II: Historical Origins

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Historical Origins of the Predator War in Pakistan


In this section, we briefly trace the geographic and historical antecedents of the Predator war in Pakistan. The objective is to highlight the institutional conditions that inform the contemporary arrangement of U.S. state violence in Pakistan. We find in the Afghan mujahideen of the 1980s a model of U.S. sovereign power—covert, outside of the traditional military command, and in partnership with the ISI—that would once again be performed in 2004. CIA methods changed dramatically in the quarter century between these interventions: in the 1980s it involved funneling resources to a range of Islamic militants; today it involves killing many of the same Islamic militants from the skies. But the form of sovereignty performed was similar in both cases. In this section we attempt to provide a truncated genealogy of what Chalmers Johnson called the “president’s private army”[1] in one historic space that has returned, again and again, as the terrain of important geopolitical events. Throughout the Cold War, a range of often-secret relationships forged between the ISI and the CIA nearly always entrenched the role of paramilitary violence and extrajudicial activity. Even as far back as the late 1960s, the CIA worked with the ISI to support the militant Khalistan secessionist movement in Indian Pubjab—a move designed to undermine India because of Indira Gandhi’s nonaligned stance.[2]


As is now well documented, the CIA and ISI partnered throughout the Afghan mujahideen era (1979–1989) in what was known as “Operation Cyclone.”[3] This was the most extensive program of covert activity in the CIA’s history, involving funding, training, and arming Afghan resistance fighters against Soviet occupation both directly and indirectly through the ISI.[4] Afghanistan served as an important Cold War proxy battlefield for the United States. Military leaders in Pakistan considered Afghanistan vital to its strategy of developing military “strategic depth” beyond conventional troops.[5] Pakistan’s right-wing President Zia ul-Haq insisted that U.S. funds had to be wired through the ISI. The consequence for the CIA was that its foreign policy indirectly became the ISI’s foreign policy; its clients, the CIA’s clients—including such brutal figures as Muslim Brotherhood warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. By 1984, mujahideen warriors had killed or wounded 17,000 Soviet soldiers and controlled 62 percent of the countryside: a big return for a $200 million U.S. investment.[6] By the close of the decade, tens of thousands of militants were passing through secret training camps in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), eventually forcing the Soviet retreat in 1989. The CIA’s activities were not only connected to the ISI during this period then, they were fundamentally structured by it. The ISI enabled and galvanized the CIA’s “paramilitary” growth and, in turn, the CIA contributed significantly to the widening gulf between Pakistan’s military and civilian institutions.[7]

The ISI is deeply influenced by the authoritarian administrative policies it inherited from the British Raj. General R. Cawthorne founded the ISI in 1948[8] in the wake of intelligence failures during the Indo-Pakistan war in 1947. The agency’s mandate to coordinate the intelligence activities of the various branches of the Pakistani military changed after U.S. foreign policy elites came to see Pakistan as a potential ally in the Cold War. John Foster Dulles, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s secretary of state, gushed before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in June of 1953, “I believe those fellows are going to fight any communist invasion with their bare fists if they have to.”[9] In 1954, Pakistan and the United States signed the Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement. This pact provided the legal foundations for future U.S. military aid to Pakistan and also paved the way for the “secretive” nature of future Pakistani–U.S. alliances handled by the ISI and CIA.[10] The alliance of the 1950s had decisive impacts on the balance of institutional power in Pakistan: the country’s first military coup took place in 1958, launching General Ayub Khan’s decade-long reign that institutionalized a colonial model of civil–military relations. The buoyed General Ayub redefined the ISI’s mandate to wrestle power away from civilian intelligence-gathering agencies and to bolster the military dictatorship. The most potent threat to military rule at this time came from populist democratic forces: notably ethno-nationalists in East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) and from the potential of the cultural cachet socialist intellectuals had with the masses to translate into mass protests. To counter both threats, the ISI established links with militant Islamic groups, using Al-Badr and Al-Shams to slaughter students, intellectuals, and politicians during the Bangladesh liberation movement in the early 1970s.[11]

The ISI was not, therefore, a “monster” reared in isolation from the rest of the world—nor can it be considered as the sole product of U.S. imperialism. From its very inception, the ISI was enmeshed in a web of training and institutional support with spy agencies from across the world, including Saudi Arabia, Iran (SAVAK), the United Kingdom (units of MI), and France (SDECE).[12] Furthermore, rather than being a monolithic organization, the ISI is a complex institution split between “Directorate C” and “Directorate S.” While the C branch has often aided CIA operations, the S branch has allegedly nurtured links with the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and Lashkar-e-Taiba. Little is available in the public record about “Directorate S.”[13]

FATA_(8)The geographic backdrop to the CIA–ISI relationship—both in the 1980s and today—is Pakistan’s FATA. As we have discussed elsewhere,[14] FATA’s history is bound to its creation as a “buffer” region during British occupation, a territorial partition that separated and alienated the tribal communities from mainstream political processes. The British ruled what became modern Pakistan with a structure of power not dependent on democratic support or rule of law, but a militaristic model of government sustained by its function in the larger British Empire, namely, a steady supply of resources and soldiers.[15] FATA still exists in a space of constitutional exception, which enables the Pakistani state—based in Islamabad—to dispense with procedures that are legally required in most Pakistani territories. It is therefore instructive that this colonial territory was “abstracted” from the rest of Pakistan from its very inception. What’s more, in a telling precedent to the CIA’s drone strikes, Royal Air Force planes were carrying out aerial surveillance and bombardment of the tribal areas throughout the 1920s and 1930s—what was known as “air policing.” Speaking about the problem of “frontier tribesman” in 1928, RAF Wing Commander Peck writes, “But of all our mechanical improvements, and our new aromoury of weapons, none has given us anything like so great an advantage, and none is so admirably suited to warfare against wild men and in wild countries, as the aircraft.”[16]

The “intractable” Wazirs would reappear as aerial targets decades later, as the ISI and CIA rekindled their relationship in the so-called war on terror. On 18 June 2004, a Predator drone struck Nek Muhammad Wazir, a Pashtun tribesman from South Waziristan, and a leader of anti-government forces in the region. This attack, the first known CIA drone strike inside of Pakistan, proved to be a significant harbinger. At the time, Pakistan took responsibility for killing an “enemy of the state,” but the truth, like the opaque reality that would ensue, was far more complicated. to Mark Mazzetti,[17] Pakistan’s military consented to opening up its northwest airspace on the proviso that the very first target would be Nek Muhammad.[18] Islamabad was furious with the commander because he had reneged on a government peace deal and resumed attacks against Pakistani troops.

At the time, Ex-president Musharraf declared that it was fine for “things to fall out the sky.”[19] He later admitted in 2013 that his government had signed off on U.S. drone strikes “when a target was absolutely isolated and [there was] no chance of collateral damage.” [20]By 2006, the CIA and ISI were still working closely in North Waziristan, sharing intelligence at an abandoned school in Miranshah.[21] According to a Wall Street Journal report, in order to avoid midair collisions the CIA regularly faxedthe ISI an outline of the boundaries of the three-dimensional “flight boxes” it wished to use.[22] While the current relationship between the CIA and ISI is typically personified as “fractious,” what is crucial is that for nearly a decade, a deadly geopolitical experiment was not only being tested in FATA, but was being exported to other countries such as Somalia and Yemen. So while discussions of the status of Pakistani sovereignty continue to dominate the political narrative, it is important to remember that the 2004 baptismal strike represented the moment in which the individualization of warfare began to grip Washington, D.C.


The targeting of the “individual” through airstrikes accelerated across Pakistan’s tribal areas.[23] On the one hand, this was driven by non-state actors dwelling within territorial sanctuaries. On the other hand, it was the outcome of transferring state violence from the military chain of command to the CIA, a civilian agency. Not only did this transfer legal accountability away from the military, it has important implications for how sovereign power is executed. Sovereignty is usually defined as a kind of exceptional act to protect the nation state from external attack. But in the case of Pakistan, we find a much more fragmentary landscape, with various covert forces enacting a form of sovereign power that is near-Kafkaesque in accountability, but no less effective at performing the will of the sovereign. In the case of the mujahideen, this power involved “outsourcing” violence to various militants; in the case of the drone wars, this opaque reality has been sustained by the merry-go-round of ISI and CIA collusion. This second, more recent shift, has meant that the CIA’s own institutional practices—including intelligence gathering, geospatial analysis, and targeted killing—would begin to drive the widespread individualization of warfare. At issue here is not simply the widely discussed “paramilitarization” of the CIA, but the influence of the CIA upon the rest of the U.S. war machine. The post–9/11 rise of Special Forces (particularly the Joint Special Operations Command [JSOC]) was, in many ways, a response to the perceived advantages of covert action—particularly under the Bush administration. As Marx Mazzetti observes, “The ability of the CIA to move more swiftly than the military with just a fraction of the Pentagon’s budget and manpower gnawed at Rumsfeld.”[24] The secretary of defense would go on to transform JSOC “from the tip of the spear of a new global killing campaign to the spear itself,” according to Jeremy Scahill.[25]

Next section: The Dronification of State Violence, Part III: The Drone War Paper Trail


[1]  Johnson, Chalmers. 2007. Nemesis: the last days of the American republic. New York: Holt Paperbacks. p.97
[2] Winchell, Sean. 2002. Pakistan’s ISI: The invisible government. International Journal of Intelligence and Counter Intelligence 16: 374—388.
[3] Gregory, Derek. 2004. The Colonial present: Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq. Oxford: Blackwell. p.30-46.
[4] Coll, Steve. 2004. Ghost wars: The secret history of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, from the Soviet invasion to September 10, 2001. London: Penguin Books.
[5] Rashid, Ahmed. 2008. Descent into chaos: The world’s most unstable region and the threat to global security. London: Penguin. p.25.
[6] Coll, Steve. 2004. Ghost wars: The secret history of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, from the Soviet invasion to September 10, 2001. London: Penguin Books. p.89.
[7] Rashid, 2008.
[8] Winchell 2002.
[9] Kux, Dennis. 2001. The United States and Pakistan, 1947-2000: Disenchanted allies. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. p.56.
[10] Jalal, Ayesha. 1990. The state of martial rule: Pakistan’s political economy of defense. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
[11] Akmam, Wardatul. 2002. Atrocities against humanity during the liberation war in Bangladesh: A case of genocide. Journal of Genocide Research 4, 543—559. Nawaz, Shuja. 2008. Crossed swords: Pakistan, its army, and the wars within. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[12] Winchell, Sean. 2002. Pakistan’s ISI: The invisible government. International Journal of Intelligence and Counter Intelligence 16: 374—388.
[13] Mazzetti, Mark. 2013. The way of the knife: the CIA, a secret army, and the war at the ends of the earth. New York: The Penguin Press. p.168.
[14] Shaw, Ian, G. R. and Akhter, Majed. 2012. The unbearable humanness of drone warfare in FATA, Pakistan. Antipode 44: 1490–1509.
[15] Yong, Tan. 2005. The garrison state: The military, government, and society in colonial Punjab, 1849—1947. New Delhi: Sage Publications.
[16] Peck, Richard H. 1928. Aircraft in small wars. Journal of the Royal United Services Institution 73: 535-550.
[17] Mazzetti, 2013.
[18] The 2010 WikiLeaks cache of revelations also revealed coordinated Predator drone flights between the two countries (see The Guardian. 2010. U.S. Embassy cables. Available online at (accessed 25 November 2011).
[19] Mazzetti, 2012, 133.
[20] Robertson, Nic, and Botelho, Greg. 2013. Ex-Pakistani President Musharraf admits secret deal with U.S. on drone strikes. CNN.
[21] Mazzeti 2013. In 2008 Bush signed a directive that allowed the CIA to act unilaterally.
[22] Entous, Adam, Gorman, Siobhan, and Perez, Evan. 2012. U.S. unease over drone strikes. The Washington Post.
[23] Outside of the U.S., Israel’s program of targeted killings against Palestinians is an important precursor.
[24] Mazzetti 2013, 19.
[25] Scahill, Jeremy. 2013. Dirty wars: the world is a battlefield. London: Serpent’s Tail.

This entry was posted in Afghanistan, Empire, Geopolitics and International Relations, History of Drones, Pakistan, RAF, Terrorism and Counterterrorism. Bookmark the permalink.

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