Why the U.S. Should Wage Its Pakistani Drone War in Public

For the last decade, America has been getting a raw deal: covert strikes in exchange for serving as the Pakistani military's punching bag.
Supporters of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa Islamic organization protest U.S. drone attacks in Karachi. (Athar Hussain/Reuters)

Six days after an American drone strike killed the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Pakistani politicians are accusing the United States of “murder.” And a militant leader responsible for attacks that killed hundreds, if not thousands, of Pakistani civilians is being viewed as a victim.

On one level, the response was nothing new in the warped, post-2001 relationship between Pakistan and the United States. For 12 years, interactions between these purported “allies” have been marked by distrust, recriminations and lies.

American officials should admit that covert U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan are now counterproductive. The strikes cause Pakistanis to vilify the United States, glorify militants and coddle duplicitous elements of the Pakistani military.

For the last decade, the Bush and Obama administrations have allowed Pakistani military officials to lie to their own people about Pakistan’s tacit support of the strikes. In exchange for the ability to carry out drone strikes, the United States serves as the Pakistan military’s punching bag.

Pakistan’s military and its ultra-nationalist allies blame foreign powers for the country’s woes. They whip up anti-American street demonstrations and say that American drones kill only civilians. They declare that civilian politicians who threaten the military’s power are “American agents.”

The only thing surprising about the dynamic is Washington’s wholehearted embrace of it. Since 2001, the United States has provided Pakistan with a staggering $17 billion in military aid, despite reports that the funds were being pilfered.

In an increasingly absurd stance, the Obama administration refuses to officially acknowledge the more than 300 CIA drone strikes carried out in Pakistan since 2004. Instead, it describes the strikes in off-the-record briefings and refuses to give a detailed accounting of how many of the estimated 3,000 people killed have been civilians.

“This whole confused, convoluted discourse would change,” Husain Haqqani, the former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, told me Monday, “if the Americans were a little forthcoming in officially declaring who was targeted and how many people were killed.”

The essential problem is Washington’s appeasement of Pakistan’s military.

Last month, the Washington Post obtained top secret CIA documents and Pakistani diplomatic memos showing that Pakistani military officials — even while bitterly complaining about drone strikes — had secretly been choosing some of the targets. Pakistani officials also received regular briefings about the results of the strikes.

The story confirmed “one of the more poorly kept national security secrets in Washington and Islamabad” — that American drones operate in Pakistan with the tacit approval of the Pakistani military.

In the early years of the program, American drones actually flew out of Pakistani military bases. If the Pakistani air force really wanted to ground the slow-moving, propeller-driven aircraft, it could simply shoot one down.

The documents also included evidence that the Pakistani military is playing what analysts have long called a “double game.” Even as it claims to be an ally in the struggle against terrorism, the military is sheltering militants — Afghan Taliban and other jihadists — whom they consider to be useful proxies against archrival India.

One memo described how former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morrell played a video for Pakistani officials of a man on a motorcycle arriving at a bomb-making center that Washington had asked the Pakistani military to shut down.

“Rather than launching raids, the Pakistanis were suspected of tipping off the militants,” the Post reported, who dispersed their materials in a “pickup truck, two station wagons and at least two motorcycles to multiple locations.”

The documents also revealed American duplicity and tight control. Though the Pakistanis choose some targets, the CIA decides when and where all strikes are carried out and informs Pakistani officials about the results afterward. And America’s spies made little effort to track civilian deaths.

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David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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