"Do what we want in Afghanistan, or we'll have the Americans drone you": Our immoral drone war — and how the CIA gets used

Time and again, our high-tech warriors and spy agencies have gotten played and killed innocents in the Middle East

Published March 7, 2015 11:30AM (EST)

  (AP/Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi)
(AP/Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi)

Excerpted from "Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins"

On January 20, 2009, a new commander in the drone wars appeared. Though the idealistic youths who had campaigned so hard for him in his presidential run may not have noticed, Barack Obama had quietly signaled early in his campaign that his view on high-value targeting was entirely orthodox. “It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al-Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005,” he told a Washington think-tank audience in August 2007, referring to a planned SEAL commando raid on an alleged high-level enemy meeting in Waziristan, aborted at the last minute by Donald Rumsfeld. Interestingly, these bellicose remarks were guided by Richard Clarke, the Clinton-era “terror czar” who had lobbied forcefully for the development of the lethal Predator drone. Those national security insiders who took solace in the candidate’s militant stance would not be disappointed.

On January 23, 2009, just three days after Obama was inaugurated, two separate drone strikes in North and South Waziristan authorized by the new president and relayed via John Brennan killed up to twenty-five people, including possibly as many as twenty civilians. Neither strike hit its intended high-value targets. The second killed a local elder and member of a pro-government peace committee named Malik Gukistan Khan along with four members of his family. Khan’s brother later told human rights researchers from Columbia Law School, “We did nothing, have no connection to militants at all. Our family supported the government . . . no one has accepted responsibility for this incident so far.” Some in Washington took a cynical view of the CIA’s eagerness to involve the new president in a strike. “He’s been blooded, just like you would a hunting dog,” a former White House official remarked to me at the time. Afterward, when Hayden and Kappes explained the concept of a signature strike — targeting people who look like terrorists — to the chief executive, Obama reportedly snapped, “That’s not good enough for me.” But he authorized them to continue all the same.

The strikes not only continued, they doubled and redoubled. There were 52 in all of 2009 and 128 in 2010. According to a rare outside observer, the New York Times journalist David Rhode, held hostage in North Waziristan between November 2008 and June 2009, life became “hell on earth.” After 7 months in captivity, he recalled the terror of life under drones: “From the ground, it is impossible to determine who or what they are tracking as they circle overhead. The buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death. Drones fire missiles that travel faster than the speed of sound. A drone’s victim never hears the missile that kills him.”

Under the onslaught, patterns of life began to change. People, for example, tried not to gather in large groups, fearful of displaying a potentially lethal signature. Following the attack on the jirga at Datta Khel, this form of community activity, integral to tribal culture, fell into disuse. Wedding parties, one of the few forms of social entertainment permitted in this straitlaced society, also disappeared. A relative of one of the March 17 victims later described how “We do not come out of our villages because it’s very dangerous to go out anywhere. . . . In past we used to participate in activities like wedding gatherings [and] different kinds of jirgas, different kinds of funerals. . . . We used to go to different houses for condolences, and there were all kinds of activities in the past and we used to participate. But now it’s a risk to go to any place or participate in any activities.”

Back in Washington, the administration maintained stoutly that civilian casualties were nonexistent or minimal (though of course death by drone for a military-aged male brought involuntary posthumous enlistment, according to U.S. methodology, as a “militant”). No remotely objective tabulation of the civilian death count in the Obama years has suggested that the drones were killing more civilians than al-Qaeda or Taliban members, but the ordinary inhabitants in the kill zone of the tribal territories clearly understood that the strikes were not precise, that anyone could unwittingly display the wrong signature. Had the drones struck only “deserving” targets, innocents would have known that and gone happily to their neighbors’ weddings and funerals without fear.

Drone partisans naturally hailed the universal precision of their weapons. As [Lt. General, USAF] David Deptula said to me, “We can now hit any target anywhere in the world, any time, any weather, day or night.” Strikes were certainly a perfect instrument of effects-based operations in removing the terrorists of various descriptions who lurked in the midst of tribal society. But the effects of hundreds of strikes, concentrated in an area the size of Maryland, were anything but precise. In fact, they devastated the life of the society as comprehensively as if it had been subjected to a World War II–style carpet bombing but in ways that would be invisible to distant spectators peering at their Predator feeds. Thus the “double-tap” tactic of reserving a second missile for rescuers converging to help victims of an initial strike put a crimp on the generosity of ordinary citizens, not to mention the Red Cross, which ordered its people to stay away from a house or car hit by drones for at least six hours. The sole survivor of Obama’s first strike, a youth named Faheem Qureshi, felt that he survived only because he was able to walk out of the burning house on his own; none of his neighbors would have dared approach. Similarly, because there have been strikes on funerals, people are wary of funeral processions and other ceremonies of collective grieving. In a further general effect on the population at large, the cost of travel and shipping goods soared as truck and taxi drivers grew fearful of the risks of being hit on the road.

Meanwhile, the increased rate of drone strikes inside Pakistan from mid-2008 was not due solely to the advent of signature strikes. The growing scale of the Tehrik-i-Taliban — the Pakistani Taliban known as TTP — insurgency against the government in Islamabad encouraged the Pakistanis to solicit further U.S. help in eliminating their domestic enemies. In return, they were prepared to assist in targeting what they considered “good” Taliban groups that reserved their energies for attacking Americans in Afghanistan. At the same time, by dint of unstinting effort and large amounts of cash, the CIA had recruited agents among the tribal populations of Waziristan to assist them in nominating and locating targets. Combining traditional spy craft with modern technology, at least some of these agents were equipped with a geolocation device (really just a SIM card with a transmitter) that could be used by a drone for targeting purposes. Clearly, whoever possessed one of these devices held the power of life and death over anyone they chose. They could plant it in the home of an al Qaeda terrorist or that of a neighbor with whom they were on bad terms. The drones need not discriminate. However many of the devices were actually deployed, their existence naturally induced paranoia among a population fearful that an argument over a broken fence or the price of a sheep might bring a missile down on their heads.

Quite apart from such neighborly differences, the empowerment of local agents to call in a strike put a powerful weapon in the hands of two rival tribes in Waziristan, the Mehsud and the Wazirs. The Mehsud, hailing from South Waziristan and so ferocious even by local standards that the British had dubbed them “wolves,” fell into open warfare with the Pakistani state and pursued an unbridled campaign of bombings, shootings, and beheadings across the country in the name of the TTP. Meanwhile, their rivals, the Wazirs, in North Waziristan, were at peace with the Pakistani government and were primarily concerned with assisting their tribal brethren fighting the Americans across the border in Afghanistan. Thus the CIA targeters were less interested in the Mehsud, until, that is, a routine NSA phone intercept in May 2009 picked up someone discussing the fact that Baitullah Mehsud, the vicious, semiliterate, but capable thug who had created and led the TTP, had a nuclear weapon. When another conversation on the topic of Islamic doctrine regarding the use of such weapons surfaced, Washington went into (secret) convulsions. Even when it was concluded that the device was merely a “dirty bomb” --radioactive nuclear waste wrapped around explosives — the level of hysteria remained high. “We got played all the time,” a former CIA operations officer told me. “All the other side had to do was to have a conversation on the phone talking in some kind of mysterious code about an upcoming ‘wedding party’ and we’d go on red alert.”

Naturally, the Pakistani government was happy to encourage the newfound U.S. antipathy toward Baitullah Mehsud, who only two months before had attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team and a police academy in Lahore in retaliation, he announced, “for U.S. missile strikes off drones inside the Pakistan territory.” A crafty initial attempt on June 23, 2009, to kill Mehsud by first killing a subordinate in the expectation he would attend the funeral, which was duly struck with three missiles, proved disappointing. Some sixty people were killed, including a number of children, but not Baitullah Mehsud. In August a second attempt that caught him on his roof having his feet massaged by his young wife proved more successful. Obama called the targeter to congratulate her.

Baitullah’s successor as leader of the Pakistani Taliban was his charismatic and more capable cousin Hakimullah. Baitullah had been nurturing a Jordanian jihadi doctor and blogger named Humam Balawi, who had convinced Jordanian intelligence, and by extension the CIA, that he was a double agent prepared to spy on al-Qaeda, whereas his true loyalties remained fervently jihadist. The CIA at the highest levels, especially “Mike,” was so excited by the possibility of finally having an agent inside the terrorist group, that the news was hurried all the way to the Oval Office. Their focus fixed on head-hunting rather than intelligence, the agency’s most fervent desire was that Balawi would lead them to a really high-value target, Ayman al-Zawahiri, number two on the list after Osama bin Laden, whom they could thereupon locate and kill.

As related in Joby Warrick’s gripping account of the Balawi affair, Baitullah had cunningly bolstered Balawi’s credentials by having him notify the agency that the Taliban leader would be traveling in a particular car on a specific day. In reality the driver of the car, duly destroyed by a drone-launched missile, was a sacrificial lamb deployed by Mehsud to convince the Americans that Balawi was on the level. The scheme worked; excitement in Washington over this potentially priceless asset grew more fevered. Balawi was now tasked by Hakimullah, along with various al-Qaeda leaders lurking in the area, to manipulate the CIA into inviting him to meet them at their heavily guarded base at Khost, just inside the Afghan border, a way station for collecting human intelligence used to target drone strikes. Tragically, the plan succeeded. All normal security procedures were waived, and on December 30, 2009, Balawi was welcomed to the base by a throng of CIA officers and contract employees, led by base commander Jennifer Matthews, a veteran of the CTC’s Alec Station who had spent the intervening years trying to live down the unit’s pre-9/11 errors. Unfortunately, Balawi was wearing a suicide vest packed with thirty pounds of C4 explosive provided by his real masters, which he detonated on arrival, immolating seven CIA personnel in a massive explosion.

The Mehsud clan and their al-Qaeda allies had extracted a bloody revenge for relatives and comrades blown apart by drones. The Khost attack was, by any standard, a very successful high-value targeting operation. Hakimullah proudly claimed credit for avenging cousin Baitullah, posting a video online of himself conferring with Balawi shortly before the bombing. But now they, too, would discover the inevitable result of a high-value target elimination as they themselves were subjected to a hail of Hellfires: eleven strikes over the next three weeks, killing at least sixty-two people. One attack in particular generated the highest hopes at Langley and the White House: a phone intercept had located Hakimullah Mehsud himself at an abandoned madrassa that was immediately attacked. Celebrations followed initial reports that Hakimullah had been struck down, but the intelligence was false. The Taliban leader had survived. A second attempt the following year also failed.

What ever higher purpose they may have had in mind, and notwithstanding their futuristic apparatus of remote split operations, streaming infrared videos, and social-network analytics, the CIA’s drone warriors were now embroiled in an old-fashioned tribal blood feud. In fact, given reports that the rival Mehsud and Wazir tribes were settling scores by identifying each other to the CIA as terrorist targets, the agency was being employed in more than one such feud. “It was like inmate politics,” one official in close touch with the drone program commented to me, “gangs settling scores in the prison yard with knives.”

The intense fusillade of drone-launched missiles continued, roughly one every 3 days in 2010 (117 overall), but drone strikes declined to half that rate in the following year. Confusingly, although the majority of strikes were now aimed at Pakistan’s allies, the so-called good Taliban at peace with Islamabad while at war in Afghanistan, ISI (Pakistani military intelligence) claimed to a Western journalist in the spring of 2010 that they were supplying the targeting information for all drone strikes. In this Machiavellian environment, ISI, intent on regaining the control of Afghanistan it had lost in 2001, was playing a devious game. “Hitting the Haqqanis and other groups that were allied with Pakistan helped ISI keep them under control,” a former adviser to the U.S. military commanders in Kabul pointed out to me. “They could tell them ‘do what we want in Afghanistan, or we’ll have the Americans drone you.’ ” Ahmed Wali Karzai, the Afghan president’s brother, laid out the facts of life to a U.S. official in February 2010, according to a classified cable published by Wikileaks, telling him that “some Afghan (Taliban) commanders . . . are told by the Pakistanis that they must continue to fight or they will be turned over to the coalition.”

On November 1, 2013, after another failed attempt, the CIA finally caught up with Hakimullah Mehsud, dispatching him with a drone strike. Though this was satisfying revenge for Khost, the killing also sabotaged nascent peace negotiations between the Pakistani Taliban and the Pakistani government, which had been due to start the following day. Among other “second-order effects,” the killing increased the power of Mehsud’s tribal rivals, the Haqqanis, the group that was busy spearheading the insurgency and killing Americans in eastern Afghanistan. It also goes without saying that the killing of Hakimullah yet again verified the rule that elimination of a high-value target leads to someone worse, since the next leader of the Pakistani Taliban was none other than Maulana Fazlullah, known locally as “Mullah Radio” for his use of that medium when pronouncing beheadings for sundry infractions of sharia law such as polio vaccinations. Fazlullah, furthermore, had commissioned the infamous shooting of fifteen-year-old schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai in response to her campaign for female education. Unfortunately, apart from his psychopathic zealotry, Fazlullah proved to be a capable and efficient commander, orchestrating further mayhem across Pakistan in revenge, he said, for Pakistani complicity in the U.S. strike on Hakimullah.

Amid the mayhem, President Obama still gamely insisted that the strikes had been “very precise precision [sic] strikes against al-Qaeda and their affiliates.” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta echoed the sentiment, calling the drone strikes “the most precise campaign in the history of warfare.” Two months after the strike on the Datta Khel jirga that killed over thirty civilians, John Brennan insisted that there had not been “a single collateral [civilian] death because of the exceptional precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop.”

Sooner or later, U.S. officials and diplomats toiling to implement what they believed was American policy came to realize that there was really only one issue at stake: the domestic U.S. political fortunes of the Obama administration. “‘No bombs on my watch,’ that’s all they wanted to be able to say,” explained one former Obama White House official to me. “Drones were a cheap, politically painless way of dealing with that. No one even talked about it very much.” Cameron Munter, ambassador to Pakistan from 2010 to 2012, recalled to me how, during visits to the region by a top White House official, an ardent drone champion, he would try and explain how there might be some political drawbacks in the drone campaign for the U.S. vis-à-vis Pakistan. “[The official] would look at me with a mixture of sympathy and pity, as if to say ‘I understand U.S. domestic politics and you don’t.’”

John Brennan did like to put a “strategic” gloss on the undertaking, explaining at meetings, according to the former White House official, how al-Qaeda was “like a table, and when you cut off the legs of a table, the table falls.” Michael Morrell, the CIA’s deputy and sometime acting director, on the other hand, appeared less interested in the theory of high-value targeting. Instead, he tended to wax emotional about the need to use the drones to help American troops fighting on the other side of the border. “He had religion on this,” recalled the former official.

Despite Brennan’s theorizing about table legs, the hard-and-fast arithmetic of the northwest frontier, as revealed in leaked intelligence numbers, suggested that the strikes, whomever they hit, were having little effect on the al-Qaeda leadership. In the years 2006 to 2008 and the 12 months from September 2010, a mere six senior al-Qaeda leaders were struck. Of the 482 people listed in the leaked assessments as killed, 265 — over half — were categorized as “non–al-Qaeda,” Afghan Taliban, Pakistani Taliban, and unknowns. Just under half of the total strikes were aimed at these non–al-Qaeda targets. The Haqqani network, Pakistan’s friends fighting the Americans, got hit with 15 strikes, while their enemy, the TTP, who were generally fighting the Pakistanis, suffered 9 strikes. No one was quite sure how many civilians had died in the middle of all this or who should even be counted as a civilian. By 2012, for example, the CIA had clearance to treat armed men traveling by truck toward Pakistan, in a country where a gun is an article of clothing, as a “pattern of life” worthy of a lethal strike, the dead being counted as “militants.” Nor could some civilian deaths ever be counted, given that Pashtun men consider it inappropriate for outsiders even to know of the existence, let alone the names, of women in their strictly segregated households. So near neighbors might not know how many women and female children could be lying under the rubble of a strike, doomed to be forever anonymous.

It is worth bearing in mind that Pakistan, in the form of its ISI intelligence agency, was the dominant influence on the Afghan Taliban, its proxies in the campaign to reacquire Pakistan’s control of Afghanistan lost in 2001. The majority of CIA strikes in Pakistan were aimed not at the remaining senior al-Qaeda leadership lurking in Waziristan, who in any case had little capability to threaten U.S. interests, but at the Taliban, who were fighting and killing Americans in Afghanistan. However, drone strikes in Pakistan required the cooperation of the Pakistanis, not merely their permission to bomb their country without being shot down but also their intelligence help in finding targets.

Strikes on the Pakistani Taliban waging their war against the Pakistani state, largely stemming from the CIA’s urge to settle scores in its feud, meanwhile engendered retaliatory attacks inside Pakistan. As security deteriorated in the politically fragile but nuclear-armed country, the danger that the militant Islamists might actually gain power and control of a nuclear arsenal became more real. Given that this was Washington’s very worst nightmare, the CIA may not exactly have been acting in the U.S. national interest. “The drone campaign only makes sense,” a former civilian adviser to the U.S. military command in Kabul remarked to me as we discussed this surreal scenario, “if you assume that the entire objective of the operation so far as the CIA was concerned was to continue the drone strikes. The operation became an end in itself.” Given the burgeoning intelligence budgets, this was of course an entirely logical position from the agency’s point of view.

Ironically, after years of experience in managing a remote-killing campaign that depended on questionable intelligence, involved allies who were themselves in an equivocal relationship with the targets, and caused extensive collateral damage while traumatizing an entire society, Washington moved to duplicate the effort elsewhere.

Excerpted from "Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins" by Andrew Cockburn. Published by Henry Holt and Co. Copyright © 2015 by Andrew Cockburn. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Andrew Cockburn

Andrew Cockburn is the Washington Editor of Harper's magazine and the author of many articles and books on national security, including the New York Times Editor's Choice Rumsfeld and The Threat, which destroyed the myth of Soviet military superiority underpinning the Cold War. He is a regular opinion contributor to the Los Angeles Times and has written for, among others, the New York Times, National Geographic and the London Review of Books.

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