News & Politics

Revealed: CIA's Deadly Drone War in Pakistan Began With Shady Blood-Soaked Deal

The U.S. assassinated a Pakistani tribal leader in exchange for airspace to conduct strikes on America’s own targets.

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The exact specifics of how America’s global drone war began has long been shrouded in secrecy. But a New York Times article published over the weekend revealing how the Central Intelligence Agency gained Pakistan’s assent to drone strikes begins to chip away at that lack of transparency.

The New York Times’ Mark Mazzetti reveals that the U.S. carried out an assassination of a Pakistani tribal leader in exchange for the use of airspace to conduct strikes on America’s own targets. The article was excerpted by Mazzetti’s forthcoming book titled The Way of the Knife: The C.I.A., a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth.

The drone killing, which took place in 2004, targeted Nek Muhammed, a key player in an armed fight by his tribe against Pakistan’s government. While Muhammed was thought to be more Pakistan’s problem, the U.S. killed him by drone anyway, opening the way for a nine-year campaign of drone strikes throughout Pakistan’s ungoverned tribal areas.

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The strike on Muhammed also killed two boys--an early indication of the civilian cost America’s drone assassination program would impose on Pakistan. But the Pakistani government took responsibility for the strike. And the C.I.A., under no obligation to disclose its activities, was just fine with that lie.

The killing of Muhammed paved the way for the expansion of the C.I.A.’s unaccountable drone war on Pakistan. Mazzetti describes the details of the deal: “Pakistani intelligence officials insisted that they be allowed to approve each drone strike, giving them tight control over the list of targets. And they insisted that drones fly only in narrow parts of the tribal areas — ensuring that they would not venture where Islamabad did not want the Americans going.”

This specific assassination was the immediate catalyst for the C.I.A.’s drone campaign. But a more long-term reason fueling the rise of drones was unease about the C.I.A.’s torture program. In the years following the September 11 attacks, the agency embarked on a global program of capturing and torturing alleged terrorist suspects. A report authored by a C.I.A. official concluded that the agency was violating international law and that officers might face criminal prosecution. The report signaled an alarm that resulted in a reduction of the amount of suspects who were detained by the agency. So the intelligence agency switched to targeted killings rather than capturing people--a hallmark of the Obama era.

The switch to drone warfare was carried out by an agency previously “ambivalent” to those new tools of war, according to Mazzetti. But the C.I.A. has now made the shift, transforming an agency “that began as a cold war espionage service into a paramilitary organization.”


Alex Kane is former World editor at AlterNet. His work has appeared in Mondoweiss, Salon, VICE, the Los Angeles Review of Books and more. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.