How covert drone strikes turn murderers into martyrs

November 6, 2013

Five 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.

“One table estimates that as many as 152 ‘combatants’ were killed and 26 were injured during the first six months of 2011,” the Post described a classified document. “Lengthy columns with spaces to record civilian deaths or injuries contain nothing but zeroes.”

As I’ve long argued, drone strikes should continue, but they should be made public and conducted by the U.S. military. The American military’s system for investigating reports of civilian deaths and paying compensation that exists in Afghanistan should be applied to American drone strikes in Pakistan and around the world. And the strikes should be coordinated with civilian and military officials in Pakistan and other countries.

In an excellent column two weeks ago, Daniel Markey of the Council on Foreign Relations called for the United States to “Let Pakistan’s Taliban talks fail without us.” Allowing the talks to proceed and likely fail, Markey argued, would expose average Pakistanis to the hardline demands of the Pakistani Taliban.

Instead, the CIA carried out the covert drone strike Friday that killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban. The move played perfectly into a right-wing Pakistani narrative of the United States as a malevolent opponent of peace.

In Haqqani’s new book, “Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding,” the former ambassador describes an attempt by the Obama administration to strike a new course in Pakistan.

(Three disclosures:  Haqqani and I worked together when he was a freelance reporter for the New York Times in 2002 and 2003. When he was the Pakistani ambassador in Washington, Haqqani tried unsuccessfully to win my release when I was kidnapped by the Taliban in 2008.  Events I witnessed during seven months in captivity in Pakistan’s tribal areas made me deeply skeptical of the seriousness of the Pakistani army’s efforts to crack down on militancy.)

Haqqani’s book, which was published on Tuesday, describes President Barack Obama’s 2009 letter where he tried to convince Pakistani officials to shift away from their decades-old vision of India as their primary national security threat. Obama offered a long-term alliance and billions in aid in exchange for a serious attempt to eradicate militancy in Pakistan.

Pakistani military officials — who have used the threat of India to dominate Pakistan for decades — rebuffed the overture. Civilian leaders feared embracing the United States in the face of Pakistan’s sweeping anti-Americanism, a public sentiment fueled, in part, by the Pakistani military.

In a brave, incisive and blunt critique of both countries, Haqqani, who was accused of being an American agent and forced to resign in 2011, calls out fellow Pakistanis.

“Pakistan cannot become a regional leader in South Asia while it supports terrorism,” Haqqani wrote. “To think that the United States would indefinitely provide economic and military assistance in return for partial support of U.S. objectives is delusional.”

But Haqqani also chastises American policymakers for believing that hurling billions in aid at the Pakistani military will change its institutional perspective.

“Americans must also overcome their fantasy that aid always translates into leverage and that personal relations with foreign officials can change what those officials consider to be their national priorities,” Haqqani wrote. “If the Pakistanis have been reticent in their cooperation, Americans have resorted only to half-hearted sanctions.”

Haqqani is right. Whatever one thinks of the Pakistani military’s duplicity, they have behaved with remarkable consistency over the last 12 years.

Sadly, so has the United States.


PHOTO (TOP): Tribesmen gather at a damaged house after a missile struck in Dandi Darpakheil village on the outskirts of Miranshah, the main town in the North Waziristan tribal region. Witnesses blamed the United States, but the Pentagon denied involvement, November 2, 2007. REUTERS/Haji Mujtaba

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud (C) sits with other millitants in South Waziristan October 4, 2009 in this video grab taken from footage released October 5, 2009. REUTERS/Reuters TV

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Supporters of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa Islamic organization burn the U.S. flag as they shout slogans during a protest, against U.S. drone attacks in the Pakistani tribal region, in Karachi, November 1, 2013. REUTERS/Athar Hussain


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Nations with killer cultures have to learn they will be killed if they do not become peaceful. They must have overwhelming supply martyrs perfectibility of their ruling class for them to learn this lesson. In WW II we not just send a bomb ever few days we sent 1,000 bombers in a single day on a single mission. We made lots martyrs in Japan and Germany, they saw the light and have not been at war since.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

Exactly how is using drones to kill civilians different to suicide bombers? (Well, except that the drone ‘drivers’ never put themselves in harms way.) Both are using terrorism in hopes of changing the world to the way they believe best with no regard for the human lives they extinguish.

Posted by euro-yank | Report as abusive

Nations with killer cultures have to learn they will be killed if they do not become peaceful. They must have overwhelming supply martyrs perfectibility of their ruling class for them to learn this lesson. In WW II we not just send a bomb ever few days we sent 1,000 bombers in a single day on a single mission. We made lots martyrs in Japan and Germany, they saw the light and have not been at war since.

That is ironic coming presumably from an American……what is George Warmonger’s War on Terror – a walk along a leafy country lane? The US has been the biggest killer since WW2 – so, you might need to reappraise your opening comment!

Posted by umkomazi | Report as abusive

Some of the bad guys killed by drones may, in fact, be turned into martyrs. More importantly, however, is the fact that they are turned into pink mist.

The terrorists are basically bullies. They will take advantage of perceived weakness. The only thing that will stop them is true strength. Obama, and his lack of a strong foreign policy, is probably more at fault for energizing terrorists. If we back down, then terrorism works and can be justified.

Any terrorist leader who is found should immediately be targeted. They need to know that one does not want to be a terrorist leader, unless he is eager to meet up with his prophet.

Posted by Dragos111 | Report as abusive

The U.S. is the biggest “killer culture” in the world. What this biased and subpar writer failed to make clear is the thousands of innocent civilians killed by drones every year. Is it any wonder why drone pilots–sitting safely in the U.S. and picking-off people thousands of miles away–suffer a high degree of PTSD? Well, at least some of them eventually develop a conscience. The politicians who order this policy have no conscience, morals, integrity, or humanity. America has become nothing more than a machine–killing machine, profit machine, war machine. America has lost its heart and soul.

Posted by cautious123 | Report as abusive

To the writer of “Any terrorist leader who is found should immediately be targeted” — if we were in the 1700s instead of the 2000s, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, etc. would all be targeted as terrorists by the British. One nation’s “terrorist” is another nation’s warrior. Yesterday’s “terrorists” are our allies today. This is politics. Given the fickle shiftings of rich men’s interests, no middle or working class kid should ever die in their wars. And shame on any of the 97 percent for ever supporting these phony wars. We need to be in Afghanistan like we need another Walmart. But as long as we are in THEIR country, killing THEIR civilians, you can bet your beer bottle and pick-up truck that they’ll fight to the last person. Just as we would if the situation were reversed.

Posted by cautious123 | Report as abusive

The Pakis lie to everyone and always blame the US. Bin Laden hiding here? NO WAY! They have nukes, which worries us all.

Posted by Doc62 | Report as abusive

Drones also turn police and politicians into thugs and tyrants. Funny how that works.

Posted by Overcast451 | Report as abusive

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson did not kill innocent women and children. Terrorists my ass. The people that the drones are targeting live for “collateral damage”. They solely target the innocent. The difference between a Terrorist and the state of being a Martyr…the dead can’t kill any more innocent civilians. Terrorists crawl into the woodwork like cockroaches when any real force appears. They live in the shadows. Drones are uniqued designed to combat these cowards. Kill em All! In 911 terrorists killed more than 2000 innocent Americans simply going about their daily life. No threat to anyone. Terrorists brought this on themselves.

Posted by xyz2055 | Report as abusive

Can’t help but notice Dave, that you… (like most people who are experts at criticizing)… aren’t quite as good at coming up with realistic alternatives. Other than essentially doing nothing of course.

I guess you must have missed the incident where Taliban linked suicide bombers deliberately blew up a church and killed 83 civilians, right during a time when they were supposedly going to start peace talks with Pakistani PM. Oh that’s right, I forgot… The liberal media conveniently ignores anything bad that people do, unless it’s the US who does it. Drone strike against a known killer = Evil Americans. Blow up a church full of people and kill 83 = Silence.

If you honestly think those nuts need anything we do as an excuse to kill people, you are living in a fantasy world.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

If I believed that drone strikes in some remote village would keep me safe, then I might not have as much a problem with the strikes. A part of the problem with Afghanistan is that “our” interests in Afghanistan are not aligned with the “common” Western man’s interests, or at least so it seems. I’m reasonably well read and I don’t see what the end game is. The strategic use of multi-million dollar robotic aircraft and associated materiel are in furtherance of someone’s interests and accrue to someone’s benefit (Boeing?), but I have yet to understand how it’s connected to mine or those like me. That said, I believe that Afghanistan is a sad and incidental participant in a political proxy war. Hamid Karzai is a useless thief who is lining his pockets with out tax dollars. The people our drones kill are primarily agents of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel (yes, Israel). Death by drone is nothing more than a series of messages intended to communicate that which diplomatic channels no longer can. I only wish the politicians would come clean…our children, on all sides, are the ones who are going to inherit this mess.

Posted by RicardoStone | Report as abusive

End the drone strikes. It’s long overdue. It’s reached the point that they do more harm than good. Find other ways to accomplish the goal.

Posted by ronryegadfly | Report as abusive

End the drone strikes. It’s long overdue. It’s reached the point that they do more harm than good. Find other ways to accomplish the goal.

Posted by ronryegadfly | Report as abusive

Simple obama is a war criminal.

Posted by Tomeee | Report as abusive

If the other side was using drones to hunt down their American counterparts in their homes, neighborhoods and other public places in America it would soon become apparent that they’re the moral equivalent of suicide bombers.

Posted by ToshiroMifune | Report as abusive