by Burkely Hermann, published on Unredacted, July 20, 2023
On March 17th of this year, State Department spokesperson Ned Price was asked by Pakistani news media about unconfirmed reports of a U.S. drone strike in the Pakistani village of Zangara, within the South Waziristan region. Price, who has since resigned from his position, neither confirmed nor denied the strike, stating “we’ve seen reports that Pakistani security forces conducted counterterrorism operations in South Waziristan on March 15. We refer you to the Government of Pakistan for any additional information.” To date, no new information has been released about the potential strike, but, if it were confirmed, it would be the first known U.S. strike in Pakistan since 2018.
To help add context to what a potential resumption of U.S. drone activity in Pakistan could mean, this posting contains a selection of documents dating from 2010 through 2013 that detail the range of issues created by the drone strikes since they began in 2004. The declassified documents appear in the recent Digital National Security Archive collection, Afghanistan War and the United States, 1998-2017, and were released in response to the Archive’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
A confidential declassified January 9, 2010 cable from the Defense Department to the Defense Intelligence Agency summarized two opinion pieces by an unnamed Pakistani research scholar in The Nation, an English-language daily newspaper based in Lahore. The op-eds, according to the cable, defended U.S. drone strikes in the country, claiming they were supported by Punjabi people, who reportedly saw them as a cause for “joy.” The writer also alleged that the Pakistani government subjugated the Punjabi people to provide a base to harbor terrorists. Similar arguments were promoted by scholars such as Neha Ansari. **
The larger picture was more complicated. On January 22, 2010, a confidential and highly-excised Defense cable provided the Defense Intelligence Agency with a summary of front-page stories in the Daily Times and The Frontier Post. The summary reported that the Pakistani military was engaged in military exercises to shoot down four Pakistani drones, with an unnamed retired general stating that they did not want to “spoil relations with the U.S.” as a result of the exercises.
Unease with U.S. drones in Pakistan is further explored in a February 2010 Congressional Research Report by John Rollins, entitled “Al Qaeda and Affiliates: Historical Perspective, Global Presence, and Implications for U.S. Policy.” On pages 9 to 10 of the report, Rollins argued that U.S. policy options to fight al-Qaeda in Pakistan were limited because “anti-American sentiment is…at peak levels within a broad spectrum of Pakistani society.” Rollins noted that there were perceptions that the U.S. was fighting against Islam, that the U.S. did not care about Pakistani democracy, and that drone strikes, and suspected covert operations, were a violation of the country’s national sovereignty. Rollins reported that while there was an increase in U.S. economic and development assistance to Pakistan, U.S. troops still could not officially operate within the country. He added that Pakistan’s security environment and distrust of the U.S. made it “extremely difficult for U.S. officials to operate effectively there.” This assessment is reinforced by a public opinion survey released by the Meridian International Center and Gallup in 2011. It estimated that in 2010, only 18% of Pakistanis approved of U.S. leadership.
Declassified Defense Department documents from 2012 and 2013 discussing responses to the drone strikes by terrorist organizations add another layer of complexity to the issue. A secret, heavily-excised August 7, 2012 cable relayed intelligence about a meeting two-months prior in Miram Shah, Pakistan between senior leaders from al-Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and other terrorist organizations. These leaders discussed how to target U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan with suicide bombings, and other attacks, in retaliation for U.S. drone strikes that had killed Taliban fighters.
A secret June 27, 2013 Defense Department cable, which provided insights about Pakistan after the country’s May 2013 elections, goes further, stating, “drones do cause collateral damage and fear.” This statement was couched by the claim that F-16s operated by the Pakistani military and terrorist actions were more damaging than U.S. drone attacks. Despite this claim, the over 560 drone strikes during the Obama administration killed scores of civilians in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, according to Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates.
The declassified documents in this posting are significant because of the ongoing official secrecy surrounding the U.S. drone war in Pakistan – despite widespread reporting on the program. Reports from as early as 2009 note that the U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan were conducted by operators for the Central Intelligence Agency’s Special Activities Division, which “piloted” U.S. Air Force drones. Yet the legal memorandums outlining justifications for CIA use of drones and the summary strike data, for U.S. drone warfare in Pakistan and elsewhere, have remained classified.
Notably, the ACLU filed a FOIA request in 2010 for information about the program with the CIA. The Agency issued a “glomar” response to the request, refusing to confirm or deny the existence of documents because “the existence or nonexistence of requested records is currently and properly classified.”. The ACLU filed suit, but was ultimately rejected by D.C. District Court, which ruled that the documents relating to the program were “properly classified.”
*Featured Image: A fully armed MQ-9 Reaper taxis down a runway in Afghanistan in November 2007. Reapers and Predators were the two types of drones used during U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan.
** Editor’s note: When I was in Pakistan in early 2012, the only people who supported Drone Warfare, or were ambivalent about it’s value were middle class or better off people living in big cities, and spoke English. This would make them less likely to be targeted by drones and more likely to consume western propaganda.