Pakistan Tells U.S. to Halt Drones, reduce CIA presence
Adam Entous And Matthew Rosenberg, The Wall Street Journal, April 11, 2011
Pakistan has privately demanded the Central Intelligence Agency suspend drone strikes against militants on its territory, one of the U.S.’s most effective weapons against al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, officials said.
Pakistan has also asked the U.S. to reduce the number of U.S. intelligence and Special Operations personnel in the country, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials.
The U.S. strategy in the war in Afghanistan hinges on going after militants taking refuge in Pakistan. The breakdown in intelligence cooperation has cast a pall over U.S.-Pakistani relations, with some officials in both countries saying intelligence ties are at their lowest point since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks spurred the alliance.
Beyond the Afghan battlefield, officials believe that without a robust counterterrorism relationship with Pakistan, al Qaeda and other groups can operate with far greater impunity when planning attacks on the U.S. and Europe. The vast majority of attacks against the West in the last decade originated in Pakistan.
Relations have been under heightened strain since Pakistan’s arrest in January of CIA contractor Raymond Davis, who was jailed after killing two armed Pakistani men in Lahore on Jan. 27. Mr. Davis was released last month, but the case fueled Pakistani resentment over the presence of U.S. operatives in their country.
Pakistani officials complained that Mr. Davis and potentially dozens of other CIA operatives were working without Islamabad’s full knowledge.
Drone strikes are opposed by an overwhelming majority of Pakistanis, and are widely seen as a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.
The CIA’s covert drone program has operated under an arrangement in which Pakistani officials deny involvement in the strikes and criticize them publicly, even as Pakistan’s intelligence agency secretly relays targeting information to the CIA and allowed the agency to operate from its territory.
That arrangement appears to be unraveling. Pakistani civilian, military and intelligence officials have sent private messages in recent weeks objecting to the strikes, complaining they have gone too far and undercut the government’s public standing.
Pakistani officials say the drones are responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths since the program was greatly expanded in the last half of 2008. Their U.S. counterparts say the number of civilians killed is at most a few dozen.
U.S. officials on Monday publicly sought to play down the tensions. CIA Director Leon Panetta met with the head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha at CIA headquarters. After the meeting, CIA spokesman George Little said the intelligence relationship “remains on solid footing.”
Some U.S. officials believe Pakistan is using the threat to cut off intelligence cooperation to get greater oversight of covert U.S. activities on its territory. Of special concern to Pakistanis are American efforts to gather intelligence on a number of militant groups with ties to Pakistan’s intelligence agency, including Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Haqqani network. Lashkar was responsible for the 2008 attack on Mumbai; the Haqqani network is one of the pillars of the Taliban insurgency and is based in North Waziristan, a border tribal area frequently targeted by CIA drones.
“The Pakistanis have asked for more visibility into some things, and that request is being talked about,” a U.S. official said. “The bottom line is that joint cooperation is essential to the security of the two nations. The stakes are too high.”
The official added: “The United States expects to continue its aggressive counterterrorism operations in Pakistan, and it would be unfortunate if the Pakistanis somehow stepped back from counterterrorism efforts that protect Americans and their citizens alike.”
Some U.S. officials say the breakdown in relations can be linked, in addition to the Davis case, to a civil court case brought in New York in November in which Lt. Gen. Pasha was named as a defendant. The case accuses the ISI of complicity in the assault on Mumbai. The ISI denies any involvement.
U.S. officials provided assurances to Lt. Gen. Pasha that he wouldn’t be summoned for questioning in the case during his visit this week.
The CIA has been caught off guard by Islamabad’s recent actions, including a rare public statement by Pakistan’s Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, condemning a March 17 U.S. drone strike that Pakistan said killed up to 40 people in North Waziristan. The strike came a day after Mr. Davis’s release; some Pakistani officials saw the strike as a provocation.
Mr. Kayani said the U.S. had “carelessly and callously targeted” a peaceful meeting of elders in North Waziristan. U.S. officials say they believe the dead were militants and dispute the high death toll.
Officials say Gen. Kayani’s public condemnation has been matched with a series of private messages from Islamabad asking the Obama administration to curtail the drone strikes, and demanding a fuller accounting of the March 17 incident.
The U.S. hasn’t committed to adjusting the drone program in response to Pakistan’s request. The CIA operates covertly, meaning the program doesn’t require Islamabad’s support, under U.S. law. Some officials say the CIA operates with relative autonomy in the tribal areas. They played down the level of support they now receive from Pakistani intelligence.
Pakistan has limited control over the tribal areas, and the region has in the past decade become a home base for myriad militant groups. Some are focused on fighting U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan; others primarily hit targets inside Pakistan; and some operate on both sides of the frontier.
Yet without the cooperation of Pakistan, which has a far more extensive informant network in the tribal areas, U.S. and Pakistani officials say the effectiveness and accuracy of CIA strikes could suffer.
A senior Pakistani official said Pakistan’s military had long been uncomfortable with the drone campaign. It now could no longer provide any “operational aid” to the campaign following a series of “intolerable outrages,” the official said.
The Pakistani official cited the March 17 drone strike as a “catalyst” but said tensions had been mounting with the U.S. for some time. “Our people don’t like it,” the official said. “We don’t like it.”
U.S. officials overcame early Pakistani objections to the program by targeting leaders of the Tehrik-e-Taliban, or TTP, a group that has targeted the Pakistani government and security forces.
In August 2009, the TTP’s founding leader, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a CIA drone strike. Officials from both countries said Pakistani intelligence had helped pinpoint Mr. Mehsud’s location.