The Washington Post on Thursday reported what it presented as new evidence of a secret agreement under which Pakistani officials have long been privately supporting the U.S. drone war in the country even as they publicly criticized it.
Most news outlets picked up the Post story, and the theme of public Pakistani opposition and private complicity on the drone issue framed media coverage of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's declaration that he had called on President Barack Obama to end the drone war.
In fact, the leak of classified CIA documents to the Post appears to represent an effort by CIA officials to head off a decision by the Obama administration to reduce the drone war in Pakistan to a minimum, if not phase it out completely. But the Post story ignored a central fact that contradicts that theme: the Pakistani military leadership had turned decisively against the drone war for years and has been strongly pressing in meetings with U.S. officials that Pakistan be given a veto over targeting.
The Post article, co-authored by Bob Woodward, said, "Despite repeated denunciation of 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...."
The Post cited top secret CIA documents that it said "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, described as "talking points" for CIA briefings, provided details on drone strikes in Pakistan from late 2007 to late 2011, presenting them as an overwhelming success and invariably claiming no civilian casualties.
It has long been known that an understanding was reached between the George W. Bush administration and the regime of President Pervez Musharraf under which the CIA was allowed to carry out drone strikes in Pakistan. A WikiLeaks cable had quoted Prime Minister Yousaf Gilani as saying in August 2008, "I don't care if they do it as long as they get the right people. We'll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it."
That statement was made, however, at a time when CIA strikes were still few and focused only on Al-Qaeda leadership cadres. That changed dramatically beginning in 2008.
The Post articles failed to point out that Pakistan's military leadership shifted from approval of the U.S. drone campaign to strong opposition after 2008. The reason for the shift was that the CIA dramatically expanded the target list in 2008 from high-value Al-Qaeda officials to "signature strikes" that would hit even suspected rank-and-file associated with supporters of the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban.
The Post referred to the expansion of the drone strike target list, but instead of noting the impact on the Pakistani military's attitude, the article brought in another popular news media theme -- the unhappiness of Obama administration officials with the support of the Pakistan's intelligence agency for the Afghan Taliban based in Pakistan.
The Obama administration was well aware of the Pakistani military's support for the Afghan Taliban movement, however, before it decided to escalate the war in Afghanistan -- a fact omitted from the Post story.
The vast expansion of drone strikes in Pakistan engineered by then CIA Director Michael Hayden in 2008 and continued by his successor, Leon Panetta, was justified by targeting anyone in Pakistan believed to be involved in support for the rapidly growing Pashtun resistance to the U.S.-NATO military presence in Afghanistan.
That shift in targeting meant that the CIA's drone war was no longer concentrated from mid-2008 onward on foreign terrorists and their Pakistani allies who had been waging an insurgency against the Pakistani government. Instead the CIA was targeting Islamists who had made peace with the Pakistani government and were opposing the Pakistani Taliban war against the government.
Two-thirds of the drone strikes in 2008 targeted leaders and even rank-and-file followers associated with Jalaluddin Haqqani and Mullah Nazeer, both of whom were involved in supporting Taliban forces in Afghanistan, but who opposed attacks on the Pakistani government.
At least initially, the CIA was not interested in targeting the Pakistani Taliban leaders associated with Baitullah Mehsud, who was leading the violent war against the Pakistani military. It was only under pressure from the new head of the Pakistani Army, Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, that the CIA began targeting Mehsud and his organization in 2009, when Mehsud was killed in a drone strike.
That temporarily mollified the Pakistani military. But in 2010, more than half the strikes in Pakistan were against Hafiz Gul Bahadur, an ally of the Haqqani forces who had reached agreement with the Pakistan government that he would not shelter or support any Taliban militants fighting against the government. Nearly all the rest of the strikes were against Afghan Taliban targets.
The original agreement reached under Musharraf was clearly no longer applicable. Kayani had clearly expressed his unhappiness with the drone war to the CIA leadership in 2008-09 and again in 2010, but only privately.