It was no secret: Pakistan tacitly agreed to drones
WASHINGTON — Despite repeatedly denouncing the CIA's drone campaign, top officials in Pakistan's government have for years secretly endorsed the program and routinely received classified briefings on strikes and casualty counts, according to top-secret CIA documents and Pakistani diplomatic memos obtained by The Washington Post.
The files describe dozens of drone attacks in Pakistan's tribal region and include maps as well as before-and-after aerial photos of targeted compounds over a four-year stretch from 2008 to 2011 in which the campaign intensified dramatically.
Markings on the documents indicate that many of them were prepared by the CIA's Counterterrorism Center specifically to be shared with Pakistan's government. They tout the success of strikes that killed dozens of alleged al-Qaida operatives and assert repeatedly that no civilians were harmed.
Pakistan's tacit approval of the drone program has been one of the more poorly kept national security secrets in Washington and Islamabad. During the early years of the campaign, the CIA even used Pakistani airstrips for its Predator fleet.
But the files expose the explicit nature of a secret arrangement struck between the two countries at a time when neither was willing to publicly acknowledge the existence of the drone program. The documents detailed at least 65 strikes in Pakistan and were described as “talking points” for CIA briefings, which occurred with such regularity that they became a matter of diplomatic routine. The documents are marked “top secret” but cleared for release to Pakistan.
A spokesman for the Pakistani Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment. A CIA spokesman declined to discuss the documents but did not dispute their authenticity.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif reiterated his country's objections to the drone campaign this week during his first visit to Washington since taking office this year.
CIA strikes “have deeply disturbed and agitated our people,” Sharif said in a speech at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “I will, therefore, stress the need for an end to drone attacks.”
He raised the issue in a meeting on Wednesday with President Obama, “emphasizing the need for an end to such strikes.” Sharif did not publicly elaborate on how Pakistan would seek to halt a campaign that has tapered off but remains a core part of the Obama counterterrorism strategy.
The files serve as a detailed timeline of the CIA drone program, tracing its evolution from a campaign aimed at a relatively short list of senior al-Qaida operatives to a broader aerial assault against militant groups with no connection to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The records expose the distrust that has afflicted U.S.-Pakistani relations.
Some files describe tense meetings in which senior U.S. officials, including then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, confront their Pakistani counterparts with U.S. intelligence purporting to show Pakistan's ties to militant groups involved in attacks on American forces, a charge that Islamabad has consistently denied.
There have been 23 strikes in Pakistan this year, far below the peak number of attacks, 117, set in 2010. The latest strike occurred Sept. 29, when three alleged fighters with ties to the militant Haqqani network were killed in North Waziristan.
Several documents refer to a direct Pakistani role in the selection of targets. A 2010 entry, for example, describes hitting a location “at the request of your government.” Another from that same year refers to a “network of locations associated with a joint CIA-ISI targeting effort.”
The documents confirm the deaths of dozens of al-Qaida operatives, including Rashid Rauf, a British citizen killed in 2008 who “helped coordinate al-Qaida's summer 2007 plot to blow up transatlantic flights originating from Great Britain,” one memo said.
But the documents reveal a major shift in the CIA's strategy in Pakistan as it broadened the campaign beyond “high-value” al-Qaida targets and began firing missiles at gatherings of low-level fighters.
The files trace the CIA's embrace of a controversial practice that came to be known as “signature strikes,” approving targets based on patterns of suspicious behavior detected from drone surveillance cameras and ordering strikes even when the identities of those to be killed weren't known.
The CIA shared maps and photographs of drone operations in Pakistan that have not been shown publicly. The maps contain illustrations, including flame emblems to mark locations of strikes. The photos show before-and-after scenes of compounds and vehicles destroyed by missiles, some marked with arrows to identify bodies.
The documents indicate that these were routinely relayed “by bag” to senior officials in Islamabad.