Emmerson, who didn’t meet military leaders, quoted Pakistani officials as saying there have been at least 330 drone strikes that have killed an estimated 2,200 people, including as many as 600 civilians.
On Feb. 5, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, Sherry Rehman, told reporters in Washington that drone strikes are “an anomaly that we are constantly addressing in all conversations with the United States, and it’s certainly not a part of our playbook to have drone operations carry on. It never was and we don’t see it as the future and we don’t want our engagement with the United States to be defined by that or our operations to devolve to this kind of low.”
According to two former U.S. officials, however, it was accepted in Washington and Islamabad that the Pakistani government publicly would denounce the strikes to hide the ISI’s role in order to shield civilian and military leaders from angry popular backlashes over the strikes and civilian casualties.
“There was an understanding on both sides of the kabuki dance that . . . the Pakistani military had to be perceived as not being a participant,” said one of the former U.S. officials. Both requested anonymity to discuss the issue because of its sensitivity.
Secret U.S. diplomatic cables made public by the Wikileaks online whistle-blowing group corroborate the former U.S. officials’ assertions. In an Aug. 23, 2008, cable, Anne Patterson, then the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, reported that in a meeting with former Prime Minister Gilani, Gilani “brushed aside” his interior minister’s suggestion that the strikes stop and told Patterson, “I don’t care if they (the CIA) do it as long as they get the right people. We’ll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it.”
Finally, it was an open secret that the drones were launched from within Pakistan itself.
For years, CIA drones were based at Shamsi, a remote airfield in southwestern Baluchistan province once used by Gulf Arab sheikhs for hawking expeditions. They continued flying from there until December 2011, when the CIA was evicted after U.S. troops in Afghanistan, under fire from Pakistan’s side of the border, called in a NATO airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani troops. CIA drone strikes into Pakistan have since continued from bases in Afghanistan at a much lower rate.
Cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistani spy agencies on drone strikes began in 2004 during the rule of the former dictator, retired Army Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and extended at least through June 2010, according to the U.S. intelligence reports.
The first confirmed CIA drone strike took place on June 17, 2004. It killed Nek Mohammad, a Pakistani Islamist who’d fought for the Afghan Taliban regime that was ousted by the 2001 U.S. invasion. At the time of his death, he was leading an uprising in the South Waziristan agency. The New York Times reported on Sunday that the strike was a joint CIA-ISI operation.
The documents that reveal the most about the CIA-ISI cooperation covered drone strikes that took place in 2006 to 2008 and in a 20-month period ending in September 2011. During that period, at least 50 strikes were launched against non-al Qaida targets.
The CIA sought ISI approval for seven strikes in 2006, according to the U.S. intelligence reports. The ISI approved four attacks and rejected three. But it eventually relented under CIA cajoling and agreed to one “forced approval.” The documents said that the ISI requested a single strike in 2006.