Pakistan Signed Secret ‘Protocol’ Allowing Drones

Michael Hirsh, National Journal
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Michael Hirsh, National Journal
Oct. 23, 2013, 11:02 a.m.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ag­gress­ive drone pro­gram in Pakistan came un­der re­newed at­tack this week, with Am­nesty In­ter­na­tion­al sug­gest­ing that the United States is en­gaged in war crimes and vis­it­ing Prime Min­in­ster Nawaz Sharif de­scrib­ing the strikes as a “ma­jor ir­rit­ant” in re­la­tions.

But what is ob­scured by the pub­lic dis­pute is that there has been, since the ad­min­is­tra­tions of George W. Bush and Per­vez Mush­ar­raf, a secret agree­ment in place by which Pakistani mil­it­ary and in­tel­li­gence au­thor­it­ies have ap­proved many of the strikes, U.S. and Pakistani of­fi­cials say.

“The ex­act terms were nev­er shared with ci­vil­ians but there was a pro­tocol between the Mush­ar­raf gov­ern­ment and the Amer­ic­ans,” says a former seni­or Pakistani of­fi­cial who would dis­cuss the clas­si­fied mat­ter only on con­di­tion of an­onym­ity. “When the ci­vil­ian gov­ern­ment came in [in 2008], it was in­formed about it but there was no rene­go­ti­ation.”

Even so, this of­fi­cial told Na­tion­al Journ­al that ci­vil­ian lead­ers in Is­lamabad have made sporad­ic ef­forts to rene­go­ti­ate. “Both [former Pres­id­ent Asif Ali] and Sharif have ap­proached Wash­ing­ton to say, ‘Can we talk about it?’”

Sharif was ex­pec­ted to bring up the drone pro­gram in his White House meet­ing with Pres­id­ent Obama on Wed­nes­day.

Be­cause the de­tails are not pub­licly known, it is not clear to what ex­tent the Pakistani mil­it­ary and in­tel­li­gence ap­par­at­us gained ap­prov­al au­thor­ity for all drone strikes. In his new book, “Mag­ni­fi­cent De­lu­sions: Pakistan, the United States and an Epic His­tory of Mis­un­der­stand­ing,” former Pakistani am­bas­sad­or to Wash­ing­ton Hu­sain Haqqani writes that the Pakistani ISI ac­tu­ally res­isted U.S. ef­forts to keep its own gov­ern­ment in Is­lamabad in­formed. “The CIA and the ISI [Pakistani in­tel­li­gence] com­mu­nic­ated reg­u­larly on the strikes,” Haqqani says. “The ISI did not like Pakistani ci­vil­ian of­fi­cials find­ing out any­thing about their deal­ings with the United States about armed Pred­at­or drones, but the U.S. gov­ern­ment wanted the ci­vil­ian lead­er­ship to re­main in the pic­ture.” The ISI, Haqqani ad­ded, was in the habit of “protest­ing against the drones pub­licly while privately ne­go­ti­at­ing over whom the drones would tar­get.”

But the two gov­ern­ments in­creas­ingly di­verged over the nature of the en­emy, with the ISI want­ing to pro­tect some of its ji­hadist al­lies in the struggle for in­flu­ence with In­dia and in­side Afgh­anistan, and to tar­get only cer­tain al Qaida-linked groups. Trust between the two sides was badly dam­aged after the U.S. uni­lat­er­ally tar­geted Osama bin Laden in a strike by Navy SEALs in Ab­bot­tabad in May 2011, com­pletely sur­pris­ing Pakistani mil­it­ary and in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials.

Of­fi­cials say that a ma­jor reas­on why the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion res­isted ef­forts by Con­gress to ob­tain the full range of its clas­si­fied leg­al memos jus­ti­fy­ing so-called tar­geted killing was to pro­tect the secret pro­to­cols with Pakistan and oth­er coun­tries, such as Ye­men.

Last Feb­ru­ary, a leg­al ex­pert out­side the gov­ern­ment who is in­tim­ately fa­mil­i­ar with the con­tents of the memos draf­ted by the Justice De­part­ment’s Of­fice of Leg­al Coun­sel told Na­tion­al Journ­al that the gov­ern­ment-to-gov­ern­ment ac­cords on the con­duct of drone strikes were a key ele­ment not con­tained in a Justice De­part­ment “white pa­per” re­vealed by NBC News. He said it was largely in or­der to pro­tect this in­form­a­tion that the tar­geted-killing memos draf­ted by Justice’s Of­fice of Leg­al Coun­sel were even with­held from con­gres­sion­al com­mit­tees. “That is what is miss­ing from the white pa­per but forms a core part of the memos,” the ex­pert said.

A Hu­man Rights Watch re­port this week also cri­ti­cized the U.S. drone pro­gram in Ye­men, say­ing the tar­geted air­strikes against al­leged ter­ror­ists have vi­ol­ated in­ter­na­tion­al law by killing in­no­cent ci­vil­ians. But a year ago, the new lead­er of Ye­men – an­oth­er coun­try with which Wash­ing­ton has signed a secret pro­tocol on drones – pub­licly en­dorsed Amer­ica’s use of drones with­in his bor­ders. “They pin­point the tar­get and have zero mar­gin of er­ror, if you know what tar­get you’re aim­ing at,” the new Ye­meni pres­id­ent, Abdu Rabbu Man­sour Hadi, said at the Woo­drow Wilson Cen­ter in Wash­ing­ton.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has con­sist­ently main­tained that ci­vil­ian cas­u­al­ties are min­im­al, and State De­part­ment spokes­wo­man Mar­ie Harf sug­ges­ted on Tues­day that the re­ports by Hu­man Rights Watch and Am­nesty In­ter­na­tion­al were in­ac­cur­ate on that score. “There’s a wide gap between U.S. as­sess­ments of such cas­u­al­ties and non­gov­ern­ment­al re­ports,” she said.

Even so the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, jol­ted by new waves of anti-Amer­ic­an­ism in Pakistan and the Ar­ab world in re­ac­tion to the drone strikes, has been en­gaged in an in­tense in­tern­al de­bate over how to nar­row the pro­gram. The ad­min­is­tra­tion be­lieves it has re­moved most of “core al-Qaida” from its cent­ral home in Pakistan, and at the same time it’s no longer quite as clear that “as­so­ci­ated” groups or in­di­vidu­als will seek to tar­get the U.S. home­land or U.S. in­terests the way bin Laden did.

Among those ex­pec­ted to in­flu­ence this ef­fort anew is Jeh John­son, Obama’s nom­in­ee to suc­ceed Janet Na­pol­it­ano as Home­land Se­cur­ity sec­ret­ary. Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials point to a speech that John­son, then the Pentagon’s gen­er­al coun­sel, gave in Novem­ber 2012 set­ting leg­al stand­ards for the drone war and lay­ing out cri­ter­ia for cur­tail­ing and even end­ing it. John­son said “there will come a tip­ping point … at which so many of the lead­ers and op­er­at­ives of al-Qaida and its af­fil­i­ates have been killed or cap­tured, and the group is no longer able to at­tempt or launch a stra­tegic at­tack against the United States, such that al-Qaida as we know it, the or­gan­iz­a­tion that our Con­gress au­thor­ized the mil­it­ary to pur­sue in 2001, has been ef­fect­ively des­troyed.” The war would then be ex­pec­ted to end – and with it, much of the drone pro­gram, John­son sug­ges­ted.

Mean­while, however, the Am­nesty In­ter­na­tion­al re­port on Pakistan con­cluded that the “strikes have res­ul­ted in un­law­ful killings that may con­sti­tute ex­traju­di­cial ex­e­cu­tions or war crimes.”

Sharif, who is seek­ing to re­pair re­la­tions with Wash­ing­ton, was some­what more cir­cum­spect in a speech in Wash­ing­ton on Tues­day, not­ing that Pakistan’s polit­ic­al parties have “de­clared that the use of drones is not only a con­tin­ued vi­ol­a­tion of our ter­rit­ori­al in­teg­rity, but also det­ri­ment­al to our re­solve and ef­forts at elim­in­at­ing ter­ror­ism from our coun­try.”

He did not men­tion the secret pro­tocol au­thor­iz­ing the use of drones with­in his coun­try’s bor­ders.

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