How the Drone Age Came to Pakistan

The tragic accidental deaths that became known recently of two Western humanitarian workers held hostage in Pakistan has brought to light once more how much that country has become the epicenter of the U.S. campaign against the Taliban. As Steve Coll noted in an article in the May 6, 2013 issue of The New Yorker, "Taliban fighters...had important bases in the tribal border areas of Pakistan. At the urging of his advisers, [President] Obama escalated clandestine drone strikes inside Pakistan in an attempt to disrupt these safe havens."

There are two basic reasons for this peculiar situation of the existence of these safe havens in Pakistan and the U.S. action against them: the nature of the passably schizophrenic Pakistani regime - a regime run by elites ruling over a mass of people that is generally underprivileged and acutely anti-American; and the nature of the symbiotic relationship between the CIA and the Pakistani military intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI).

Pakistan, an irredentist country still seeking, after all these years, to undo what it considers an unlawful seizure of Kashmir by its more powerful neighbor, India, developed a close relationship with the United States following its birth in the aftermath of World War II. On the other hand, the U.S. was held at arm's length by India, which became a de facto ally of the USSR during the Cold War.

Pakistan, the creator of the Taliban, has sought to use this organization to gain influence in Afghanistan and put a check on Indian inroads there. It has also supported other terrorist organizations in Pakistan to create trouble in Kashmir and in India itself. At the same time, Pakistani society has become a target of terrorists linked to a home-grown Taliban organization as well as Sunni extremists opposed to the Shiite minority in the country.

In the 1950's the CIA, developer of the U-2 spy plane, carried out reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union, starting from the Pakistani military base in Peshawar. The ISI, the intelligence service of the all-powerful Pakistani Army, was assigned to coordinate these flights with CIA personnel in Pakistan.

Thus began the longstanding relationship between the CIA, a civilian intelligence service, and the ISI, a military intelligence service, a relationship that lasted all through the years, including and especially during the period 1979-1989 and the joint operation in support of the Afghan resistance against the Soviet Union. The relationship has lasted through the ups and downs at the political level that have peppered the relationship, particularly over the recent years.

Fast forward to 2004. In a parallel to the U-2 precedent, it was the CIA that had developed the Predator drone. By this time, al-Qaeda, having fled Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, had arrived in what was to be a safe haven: Pakistan. According to The New York Times of 24 April 2015 (p. A12), "Under the terms of a secret arrangement brokered in 2004, the CIA was allowed to conduct lethal strikes inside the tribal areas of Pakistan, but neither the American nor the Pakistani government could acknowledge their existence." The article goes on to state that, "...even as the American military withdraws from Afghanistan, the CIA has pushed to keep certain bases in that country open, so operatives can run missions across the border to gather intelligence for drone strikes."

In another article in The New York Times (26 April 2015, p. 4), it was stated that, "...two years ago...White House officials stated they wanted to shift the bulk of drone operations from the CIA to the Pentagon, with the stated intent of making the program more transparent." But this has not happened as yet: "It is the CIA, not the Pentagon, that continues to carry out all of the drone strikes in Pakistan and most of those in Yemen. "

It should be apparent from a close reading of the above just how difficult it would be to transfer drone operations from the CIA to the military in the Afghanistan-Pakistan (AfPak) region.