6 May 2011

Can CIA drone attacks on Pakistan succeed?

The Obama administration has presided over a significant increase in unmanned CIA drone attacks on Pakistan. Who is pushing the policy forward – and can it succeed?

Can US drone attacks on Pakistan succeed?

This report was first published in December 2010

In February 2010 the New America Foundation, a US think tank, published a paper based on press accounts of US drone strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and 2010. The report, by Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, was not definitive because it was impossible to secure absolutely verifiable data about casualties in Pakistan’s north western tribal regions. But it was the best publicly available collection of data about UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) strikes in the area.

Updated figures from the foundation showed that between 1,320 and 2,049 individuals were killed in the 209 drone strikes between 2004 and December 2010. Of those casualties, approximately 25 per cent were civilian. There were between 558 and 935 deaths in Pakistan from US drone strikes in 2010 alone (up until 17 December), of which between 532 and 873 were thought to have been “militant deaths”.

Media reports of the strikes have focused on the deaths of senior al-Qaeda leaders, several of whom were been killed in the two years up to last December. But the campaign’s primary objectives, according to the Long War Journal, has been to pre-empt attacks on the United States and its allies and to disrupt Taliban and al-Qaeda operations in Afghanistan.

There are concerns in some quarters over the legality of the strikes. Opponents say they violate Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty. What is more, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), not the US Department of Defence, is organising the strikes, which raises a variety of questions. Who are the people making decisions about the use of force? To whom are they accountable? Do the people involved have the necessary training?

Peter W Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution, explains that when you shift operations away from the military to the CIA, “you have people outside the military chain of command, making decisions about the use of force in a way that would have previously been done inside the military. This applies to the head of the agency down to the operators and even the lawyers involved.”

You have people outside the military chain of command, making decisions about the use of force. Peter W Singer, Brooking Institution

Nor is it known where the CIA drones are controlled from. The Creech Air Force Base in Nevada is the home of the “UAV Battlelab” from which military drones are controlled, in tandem with operators on the ground in Kandahar or Bagram. But there is no clarification about where CIA UAVs are controlled from.

A UN report on targeted killings published in May 2010 says that “The CIA reportedly controls its fleet of drones from its headquarters in Langley, Virginia, in coordination with pilots near hidden airfields in Afghanistan and Pakistan who handle takeoffs and landings.” Yet, as Peter W Singer points out, “strikes are not openly admitted to, so there is no defined public fact or statement that one can point to”.

Signature effort in the terror war
In August 2007, during the presidential campaign, Barack Obama announced that he would be willing to attack inside Pakistan, with or without approval from the Pakistani government. The first high-profile hostile military action under the Obama presidency took place 17 months later, on 23 January 2009, when between 14 and 20 people were killed in two remote US missile strikes on Mirali, in North Waziristan, a stronghold of al-Qaeda and Taliban militants. The official US response set the tone for subsequent attacks, with White House press secretary Robert Gibbs refusing to answer questions on the strikes.

Pakistan UAV attacks have become one of the Obama administration’s signature efforts in the terror war. Although the CIA does not divulge how many drones it operates, press reports suggest the agency has as many as 16 such systems. But in the early days of his presidency, Barack Obama was advised by at least two former high-ranking CIA officers not to over-rely on the use of drones.

Former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel, commissioned by the president to review US policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, concluded that robot airplanes could only function successfully when allied to high-quality “on the ground” intelligence.

That view was shared by General Michael Hayden, CIA director at the start of the Obama presidency. In his book Obama’s Wars, Bob Woodward recounts how Hayden believed that “The great lesson of World War II and Vietnam was that attack from the air, even massive bombings, can’t win a war.”

Noah Shachtman, contributing editor of Wired.com, warns that the lesson of not having troops on the ground could be over-learned: “The idea that any terrorist problem could be solved by drones alone just isn’t realistic. Drones are only as effective as the human informants who tell them where to strike.” For him, a drones-only policy could become “a way of maintaining political cover and a veil of secrecy over operations that might ordinarily be wide open”.

A new emphasis
Nonetheless, Leon Panetta’s appointment as Hayden’s successor in February 2009, one month after Barack Obama assumed office, suggested a new emphasis on drone use. Without actually admitting that his agency was organising a covert UAV strikes campaign in Pakistan, Panetta put himself on record in May 2009, describing the use of drones in the country as “the only game in town in terms of… trying to disrupt the al-Qaeda leadership”.

Such strikes have become increasingly successful in recent years. Noah Shachtman told Channel 4 News this was because “cooperation with Pakistan intelligence has got better and the CIA has developed more assets there. Also, according to published reports, the CIA is using smaller weaponry on the drones, so the chances of collateral damage have been reduced.”

Cooperation with Pakistan intelligence has got better. The chances of collateral damage have been reduced. Noah Shachtman, Wired.com

John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, is more sceptical about the role of “human intelligence” in improving the success rate of drone strikes. During the Iraq war, surveillance aircraft helped identify Baghdad bomb factories by filming on the ground activity. Over time, movement patterns emerged which helped pinpoint certain locations.

“Drone strikes keep going up as they’ve developed better targeting,” he says. “It means pattern recognition has more data to work with. The more hours of surveillance video you have, you keep getting smarter. But if you rely on human intelligence, that is presumably in finite supply.”

Targeting the CIA
It emerged on 17 December that the CIA had decided to pull its “top spy” out of Pakistan after terrorists threatened to kill him.

Earlier in the month Kareem Khan, a Pakistani journalist, filed a complaint against Jonathan Banks, thought to be CIA station chief in Pakistan, in connection with the killing of Khan’s son and brother in a drone attack in Mirali in December 2009. At a press conference, Khan claimed Banks coordinated on the ground intelligence through a network of spies.

Kahn’s application to register the case against Banks said: “Jonathan Banks is operating from the US embassy in Islamabad which is a clear violation of diplomatic norms and laws, as a foreign mission cannot be used for any criminal activity within a sovereign state.”

It is also alleged Banks was in Pakistan on a business visa, which gives him no diplomatic status and thus does not immunise him from prosecution.

One of Banks’s predecessors was John D Bennett, who served as Pakistan station chief until 2009. In an indication of the importance the CIA attaches to its drone strategy in Pakistan, Leon Panetta announced in July 2010 that Bennett was to come out of retirement to become head of the agency’s National Clandestine Service, which is in charge of covert CIA operations.

Panetta said of Bennett: “John has impeccable credentials at the very core of intelligence operations – espionage, covert action, and liaison.” He added: “John is an outstanding leader, devoted to the mission and those who get it done. He says what he thinks and he does what he says.”

Earlier in his career Bennett ran the Special Activities Division, which Wired.com describes as “the CIA’s paramilitary wing”.

Pakistan’s frontline role
While head of station in Pakistan (which today is the agency’s most active foreign bureau), Bennett was deeply involved in the drone campaign there. On his watch, a CIA Predator drone in the Zangara area of Waziristan targeted and killed Baitullah Mehsud in August 2009. Mehsud, at the time leader of the Pakistan Taliban, is thought to have masterminded Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in December 2007.

Mehsud’s wife and bodyguards also died in the operation. A detailed account of the attack in a New Yorker article by Jane Mayer describes how officials watched a live video feed of the operation from CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

I don’t care if they do it as long as they get the right people. Pakistan PM Gilani on US drone strikes

The issuing of Kareem Khan’s complaint against Jonathan Banks coincided with a visit to Pakistan of Michael Morell, Leon Panetta’s second in command at the CIA. Reports say he met Pakistan’s Prime Minister Gilani on 13 December 2010 to discuss, among other things, “Pakistan’s frontline role in the campaign against terror, and cooperation between Pakistan and the US in defence and security areas”.

The main purpose of Morell’s visit was apparently to control the damage caused to Pakistan’s interests by WikiLeaks revelations. One “secret” memo from Anne Patterson, former US Ambassador to Pakistan, dated 9 October 2009, describes how the Pakistan Army “has for just the second time approved deployment of US special operation elements to support Pakistani military operations”.

The memo also refers to “a live downlink of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) full motion video” offered to the Pakistan Army’s 11 Corps.

‘As long as they get the right people’
The use of Predators against targets in the tribal areas is also the subject of a leaked memo describing a 2008 meeting between Ambassador Patterson and Premier Gilani, in which he is apparently dismissive of concerns about the drones’ effects. “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,” he is quoted as saying.

In fact, an image available on Google Earth and dating from 2006 (it is now no longer on the site) appeared to show that the US was flying unmanned drones from the Shamsi airbase in Baluchistan as early as 2006. The Times reported in February 2009 that the aerial photograph showed three Predator drones outside a hangar at the end of a runway.

Pakistan and the US repeatedly denied between 2006 and 2009 that Washington had used Pakistani bases to launch drone attacks. In the latest Google Earth image of the Shamsi airfield (see above), there are no drones in evidence – but there is a large white hangar which experts suggest could be used to house up to three UAVs.

A ‘virtueless’ war
In one sense, the CIA drone campaign in Pakistan – indeed, every UAV attack – mirrors the cyber war that has broken out in the wake of WikiLeaks revelations, between “anonymous” hacker supporters of Julian Assange and the multinational institutions which have tried to sever business connections with WikiLeaks. Those who control the drones, just like those who coordinate denial of service attacks, are spared the prospect of danger or sacrifice. In the words of Sir Brian Burridge, Britain’s air chief marshal in Iraq, they are involved in a “virtueless” war.

And though the US has declared that Afghanistan and Pakistan are part of the same conflict, the fact is that reporters have been allowed to travel to Kandahar to speak with engineers maintaining the drones in Afghanistan. With Pakistan, by contrast, the names of the contractors and personnel involved are shrouded in mystery.

Drones are here to stay, nevertheless. General Atomics, which manufactures the Predator and Reaper drones, is one part of a booming worldwide industry which will continue to thrive. A 2009 study by defence analysts Teal Group predicts that worldwide annual UAV expenditure will have risen to £5.5bn ($8.7bn) within a decade.

The Brooking Institution’s Peter W Singer puts it in stark terms: “There is not a single aerospace company in the West now that has a manned combat aircraft in the research and development stage. All of them being presently researched for the next generation are unmanned.”