WASHINGTON — Even as its civilian leaders publicly decried U.S. drone attacks as breaches of sovereignty and international law, Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency secretly worked for years with the CIA on strikes that killed Pakistani insurgent leaders and scores of suspected lower-level fighters, according to classified U.S. intelligence reports.
Dozens of civilians also reportedly died in the strikes in the semi-autonomous tribal region of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan that is a stronghold of al Qaida, Afghan militants, other foreign jihadists and a tangle of violent Pakistani Islamist groups.
Copies of top-secret U.S. intelligence reports reviewed by McClatchy provide the first official confirmation of joint operations involving drones between the U.S. spy agency and Pakistan’s powerful army-run Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI, as well as previously unknown details of that cooperation. The review takes on important significance as the administration reportedly is preparing to expand the use of drones in Afghanistan and North Africa amid a widespread debate over the legality of the strikes in Pakistan.
The documents show that while the ISI helped the CIA target al Qaida, the United States used drone strikes to aid the Pakistani military in its battle against the Taliban Movement of Pakistan, or TTP – assistance that the Obama and Bush administrations never explicitly acknowledged or legally justified.
The White House did not respond immediately to a request for a comment on McClatchy’s findings. The Pakistani government denied there was ever any cooperation on drone strikes.
The partnership was so extensive during the Bush administration that the Pakistani intelligence agency selected its own targets for drone strikes. Until mid-2008, the CIA had to obtain advanced approval before each attack, and under both administrations, the Pakistanis received briefings and videos of the strikes.
The U.S. intelligence reports illustrate how the Pakistani army retained its grip on national security policy after 2008 elections ended the nation’s fourth bout of military rule and brought to power a civilian government, which condemned drone strikes as violations of Pakistan’s sovereignty and international law. The strikes killed hundreds of civilians and produced new recruits for Islamist extremist groups, charged the government, which resigned last month in advance of May 11 parliamentary voting.
What remains unclear is the degree to which the government under President Asif Ali Zardari, which tried unsuccessfully to wrest control of the ISI from the military, acquiesced in the CIA-ISI collaboration.
The ISI is a domestic and international spy and paramilitary service that officially reports to Pakistan’s prime minister. In reality, however, the agency answers to the chief of staff of the army, which has ruled Pakistan for most of its 66 years. Former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani in 2011 called the army a “state within a state.”
Traditionally commanded by an army general and mostly staffed by military officers, the ISI has an ominous reputation as the Pakistani army’s instrument for rigging elections and crushing internal dissent. It has been accused of directing proxy wars and terrorist attacks by Islamist extremists in India and on civilians and U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan.
The CIA-ISI cooperation on drones reflects one of the major contradictions that have long infected relations between the United States and Pakistan.
The United States has regularly praised the ISI for helping to capture and kill key al Qaida operatives, including those behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But senior U.S. officials also have charged that elements in the ISI support the Afghan Taliban and allied insurgents fighting U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan. Neither the ISI nor the army high commander were told in advance of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, for fear he’d be tipped off and escape. At the same time, the U.S. has provided billions to Pakistan in military aid and assistance to stabilize democracy and help secure its nuclear weapons.
For their part, Pakistani officials deny that the ISI supports Afghan insurgents. For years, the Pakistani army has spurned U.S. demands that it close their sanctuaries, contending that its counterterrorism cooperation with the United States has cost the lives of tens of thousands of security forces and civilians. And the army has declared its support for the civilian leadership’s position on drone strikes.
“As far as drone attacks are concerned, (the) army has repeatedly conveyed to all concerned that these are not acceptable under any circumstances. There is no room for ambiguity in this regard,” the military’s top commanders said in a June 9, 2011, statement.
A spokesman for the Pakistani Embassy in Washington said, “We forcefully contest” that there was any collaboration between the ISI and CIA on drone strikes.
In its limited disclosures about the secret drone program, the Obama administration has said drones only are used to eliminate confirmed “senior operational leaders” of al Qaida and “associated groups” involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. who are plotting “imminent” violent attacks on Americans and can’t be captured.
The U.S. intelligence reports reviewed by McClatchy covered most – though not all – of the drone strikes in 2006-2008 and 2010-2011. Several listed casualty estimates as well as the names of targeted militant groups. Most were against al Qaida. But they also targeted the Haqqani network of Afghan insurgents, several factions of the Pakistani Taliban and groups identified only as “foreign fighters” and “other militants.”
While the Pakistani Taliban works closely with al Qaida, it wasn’t formed until 2007. Also, many U.S. officials never took seriously its occasional threats to stage attacks inside the United States, and the group is not known to have initiated any operations against the U.S. homeland. It did provide perfunctory training and funds to a Pakistani American who staged a failed car-bombing in New York’s Times Square on May 2, 2010, but he admitted seeking them out.
The Pakistani government, which resigned last month in advance of May 11 national elections, for years publicly insisted that it opposed U.S. drone strikes, and it frequently delivered official and unofficial protests to the United States.
In a statement after a March 11-13 visit to Pakistan, Ben Emmerson, a British lawyer who is leading a U.N. investigation into civilian casualties caused by drones, said that the Pakistani government “emphasized its consistently stated position that drone strikes on its territory are counterproductive, contrary to international law, a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and that they should cease immediately.”
Emmerson, who didn’t meet military leaders, quoted Pakistani officials as saying there have been at least 330 drone strikes that have killed an estimated 2,200 people, including as many as 600 civilians.
On Feb. 5, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, Sherry Rehman, told reporters in Washington that drone strikes are “an anomaly that we are constantly addressing in all conversations with the United States, and it’s certainly not a part of our playbook to have drone operations carry on. It never was and we don’t see it as the future and we don’t want our engagement with the United States to be defined by that or our operations to devolve to this kind of low.”
According to two former U.S. officials, however, it was accepted in Washington and Islamabad that the Pakistani government publicly would denounce the strikes to hide the ISI’s role in order to shield civilian and military leaders from angry popular backlashes over the strikes and civilian casualties.
“There was an understanding on both sides of the kabuki dance that . . . the Pakistani military had to be perceived as not being a participant,” said one of the former U.S. officials. Both requested anonymity to discuss the issue because of its sensitivity.
Secret U.S. diplomatic cables made public by the Wikileaks online whistle-blowing group corroborate the former U.S. officials’ assertions. In an Aug. 23, 2008, cable, Anne Patterson, then the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, reported that in a meeting with former Prime Minister Gilani, Gilani “brushed aside” his interior minister’s suggestion that the strikes stop and told Patterson, “I don’t care if they (the CIA) do it as long as they get the right people. We’ll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it.”
Finally, it was an open secret that the drones were launched from within Pakistan itself.
For years, CIA drones were based at Shamsi, a remote airfield in southwestern Baluchistan province once used by Gulf Arab sheikhs for hawking expeditions. They continued flying from there until December 2011, when the CIA was evicted after U.S. troops in Afghanistan, under fire from Pakistan’s side of the border, called in a NATO airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani troops. CIA drone strikes into Pakistan have since continued from bases in Afghanistan at a much lower rate.
Cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistani spy agencies on drone strikes began in 2004 during the rule of the former dictator, retired Army Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and extended at least through June 2010, according to the U.S. intelligence reports.
The first confirmed CIA drone strike took place on June 17, 2004. It killed Nek Mohammad, a Pakistani Islamist who’d fought for the Afghan Taliban regime that was ousted by the 2001 U.S. invasion. At the time of his death, he was leading an uprising in the South Waziristan agency. The New York Times reported on Sunday that the strike was a joint CIA-ISI operation.
The documents that reveal the most about the CIA-ISI cooperation covered drone strikes that took place in 2006 to 2008 and in a 20-month period ending in September 2011. During that period, at least 50 strikes were launched against non-al Qaida targets.
The CIA sought ISI approval for seven strikes in 2006, according to the U.S. intelligence reports. The ISI approved four attacks and rejected three. But it eventually relented under CIA cajoling and agreed to one “forced approval.” The documents said that the ISI requested a single strike in 2006.
“We wouldn’t win every argument. But they would help us and support us,” said a former senior U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The documents didn’t identify the 2006 targets, but Pakistani and international news media reported only two confirmed strikes that year. Several former U.S. officials, however, noted that in the early years, the Pakistani army took credit for attacks that actually were CIA strikes.
The 2006 strikes included a Jan. 13 attack on a compound in the Bajour agency that triggered what appears to have been Pakistan’s first official denunciation of the drone operations.
Al Qaida’s then-No. 2 leader, Ayman Zawahiri, was thought to have been in the compound, although U.S. officials later acknowledged that he wasn’t there. At least 18 civilians were killed, however, igniting violent protests around the country. The Foreign Ministry summoned then-U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker to deliver an official protest, and the Pakistani government vowed that it would “not allow such incidents to reoccur.”
In 2007, the CIA sought ISI approval for 15 strikes, received prompt approval for three and a single “forced approval,” according to the documents, which said that the ISI asked the CIA to strike five targets.
One ISI-requested strike occurred on May 22, 2007, and was against an insurgent training camp in the North Waziristan agency after a Pakistani army assault on the compound was repulsed, the documents said. The Pakistani army sought the strike even though it had been told that drones wouldn’t be used to support Pakistani troops in combat, said an individual familiar with the episode. He requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue.
Pakistani and international news media reported five drone strikes in 2007, but they didn’t include a May 22 attack.
The following year saw a major escalation in drone strikes, with 35 recorded in one U.S. intelligence report. Independent studies based almost exclusively on news media reports put the number at 38.
The increase came as the Bush administration began winding down the war in Iraq and redirecting U.S. funds, personnel and hardware to halting the expanding Pakistan-based insurgency in Afghanistan. It also sought to re-energize a flagging hunt for Osama bin Laden, who was believed to be hiding in Pakistan’s tribal area, and U.S. officials were growing alarmed over the stability of nuclear-armed Pakistan as the Pakistani Taliban insurgency exploded.
Another reason for the escalation, said a former administration official, was that U.S. officials worried about an increasing threat to the United States following a series of plots in Europe by al Qaida-linked extremists who’d been trained in Pakistan’s tribal area.
“There was a growing chorus of threat reporting to the homeland,” said the former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “This was about European tracking of people migrating through Turkey (to Pakistan) and back to Europe and particularly to here (the United States). The agency (CIA) was tracking that down. They would not be left holding the bag if there was another 9/11.”
Partway through the year, however, Washington stopped seeking ISI approval for drone strikes and began unilaterally hitting Afghan insurgents, particularly the Haqqani network, in the first so-called “signature strikes.” Those are strikes in which the CIA uses drones to monitor and then hit unidentified individuals whose behavior fits what the U.S. government considers terrorist profiles, such as frequenting compounds associated with al Qaida or other groups.
The main reason for ending the ISI’s ability to veto targets, said two former U.S. defense officials and a senior U.S. official, was that after several years of arguing, U.S. military and intelligence officials finally persuaded the White House that ISI officers were protecting the Haqqani network to ensure that it could participate in peace talks and bring a pro-Pakistan government to power in Kabul. The three requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
“Basically, they (the CIA and ISI) started out together but then they diverged because the two sides had different objectives. It was as simple as that,” explained the individual with knowledge of the North Waziristan strike.
Even so, the ISI continued working with the CIA on drone strikes, the documents show, listing a series of strikes against al Qaida, the Haqqani network and the Pakistani Taliban that began in January 2010, continued for at least six months and claimed the lives of at least 129 suspected extremists.