An Air Force officer prepares a computer-controlled military drone for a test flight in the microaviary lab at the Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. (Reuters)
Islamabad, March 5: When news of the two latest drone strikes emerged from Pakistan’s tribal belt in early February, it seemed to be business as usual by the CIA.
Local and international media reports, citing unnamed Pakistani officials, carried typical details: swarms of American drones had swooped into remote areas, killing up to nine people, including two senior commanders of al Qaida.
In Islamabad, Pakistan’s foreign ministry lodged an official protest with the American embassy.
Yet there was one problem, according to three American officials with knowledge of the programme: The US did not carry out those attacks.
“They were not ours,” said one of the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the drone programme’s secrecy. “We haven’t had any kinetic activity since January.”
What exactly took place in those remote tribal villages, far from outside scrutiny, is unclear. But the Americans’ best guess is that one or possibly both of the strikes were carried out by the Pakistani military and falsely attributed to the CIA to avoid criticism from the Pakistani public.
Email and phone messages seeking comment from the Pakistani military were not returned.
If the American version is true, it is a striking irony: In the early years of the drone campaign, the Pakistani Army falsely claimed responsibility for American drone strikes in an attempt to mask CIA activities on its soil. Now, the Americans suggest, the Pakistani military may be using the same programme to disguise its own operations.
More broadly, the phantom attacks underscore the longstanding difficulty of gaining reliable information about America’s drone programme in the remote and largely inaccessible tribal belt — particularly at a time when the programme is under sharp scrutiny in Washington.
For the past month, John . Brennan, President Obama’s counter-terrorism adviser and nominee to lead the CIA, has been dogged by Congressional questions about the drone programme’s lack of transparency, particularly when it comes to killing American citizens abroad. The biggest obstacle to confirming details of the strikes is their location: the strikes usually hit remote, hostile and virtually closed-off areas. Foreign reporters are barred from the tribal belt, and the handful of local journalists who operate there find themselves vulnerable to pressure from both the military and the Taliban.
That murkiness has often suited the purposes of both the CIA and the Pakistani military. It allows the Americans to conduct drone strikes behind a curtain of secrecy, largely shielded from public oversight and outside scrutiny. For the Pakistanis, it allows them to play both sides: publicly condemning strikes, while quietly supporting others, like the missile attack that killed the Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in 2009.