Previously exposed diplomatic cables have already shown that Pakistan’s civilian leaders are strongly supportive – in private – of the drone strikes on alleged militant targets in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), even as they condemn them for general consumption. But it is not just the civilian leadership that has been following a duplicitous policy on the robotic vehicles.
In a meeting on January 22, 2008 with US CENTCOM Commander Admiral William J. Fallon, Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani requested the Americans to provide “continuous Predator coverage of the conflict area” in South Waziristan where the army was conducting operations against militants. The request is detailed in a ‘Secret’ cable sent by then US Ambassador Anne Patterson on February 11, 2008. Pakistan’s military has consistently denied any involvement in the covert programme run mainly by the CIA.
The American account of Gen Kayani’s request for “Predator coverage” does not make clear if mere air surveillance were being requested or missile-armed drones were being sought. Theoretically “Predator coverage” could simply mean air surveillance and not necessarily offensive support. However the reaction to the request suggests otherwise. According to the report of the meeting sent back to Washington by Patterson, Admiral Fallon “regretted that he did not have the assets to support this request” but offered trained US Marines (known as JTACs) to coordinate air strikes for Pakistani infantry forces on ground. General Kayani “demurred” on the offer, pointing out that having US soldiers on ground “would not be politically acceptable.”
In another meeting with US Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen over March 3-4, 2008, Kayani was asked for his help “in approving a third Restricted Operating Zone for US aircraft over the FATA.” The request – detailed in a cable sent from the US Embassy Islamabad on March 24 – clearly indicates that two ‘corridors’ for US drones had already been approved earlier.
In secret cable on October 9, 2009 (previously published by WikiLeaks), Ambassador Patterson reports that US military support to the Pakistan Army’s 11th Corps operations in South Waziristan would “be at the division-level and would include a live downlink of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) full motion video.” In fact, in November 2008, Dawn had reported then commander of US forces in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, telling its reporter that US and Pakistan also share video feeds from Predator drones that carry out attacks. “We have a Predator feed going down to the one border coordination centre at Torkham Gate thats looked at by the Pakistan Military, Afghan Military, and the International Security Assistance Force,” General McKiernan had said.
Sharing of video feeds does not imply operational control by Pakistan’s military, however, and even this sharing may have subsequently been suspended.
Despite the occasionally disastrously misdirected attacks which have fed into the public hue and cry over civilian casualties, there is, in private, seeming general acceptance by the military of the efficacy of drone strikes. In a cable dated February 19, 2009, Ambassador Patterson sends talking points to Washington ahead of a week-long visit to the US by COAS Kayani. Referring to drone strikes, she writes: “Kayani knows full well that the strikes have been precise (creating few civilian casualties) and targeted primarily at foreign fighters in the Waziristans.”
Another previously unpublished cable dated May 26, 2009 details President Zardari’s meeting on May 25 with an American delegation led by Senator Patrick Leahy. “Referring to a recent drone strike in the tribal area that killed 60 militants,” wrote Ambassador Patterson in her report, “Zardari reported that his military aide believed a Pakistani operation to take out this site would have resulted in the deaths of over 60 Pakistani soldiers.”
The general support for drone strikes from both the military and civilian leadership is also evidenced by the continuous demand, documented over numerous cables, from Pakistan Government officials to American interlocutors for drone technology to be placed in Pakistani hands. The issue conveyed to the Americans is not so much that of accuracy as that of managing public perceptions.
In the meeting with Senator Leahy, Zardari is directly quoted telling the US delegation to “give me the drones so my forces can take out the militants.” That way, he explains, “we cannot be criticized by the media or anyone else for actions our Army takes to protect our sovereignty.”
General Kayani also “focused on the need for surveillance assets” in the meeting with Admiral Fallon according to Patterson’s cable. “Kayani said he was not interested in acquiring Predators, but was interested in tactical Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs).” Predators are considered ‘theatre-level’ technology able to cover wide regions such as the whole of Afghanistan and Pakistan through remotely stationed operations rooms while ‘tactical’ drones are less wide-ranging and can be operated by forces on the ground.
After the first US drone strike outside the tribal areas, in Bannu on November 19, 2008 which killed four people including an alleged senior Al Qaeda member, Ambassador Patterson had presciently noted in another previously unpublished cable (dated November 24, 2008) the dangers of keeping the Pakistani public misinformed. “As the gap between private GOP acquiescence and public condemnation for US action grows,” she wrote back to Washington, “Pakistani leaders who feel they look increasingly weak to their constituents could begin considering stronger action against the US, even though the response to date has focused largely on ritual denuncia