There was a time, just last year, when Pakistan's government could not stop droning on about America's aerial wars. Now, following the seven US drone strikes that have hit Pakistan in the last 11 days, Islamabad has fallen silent.
It's almost deafening, this blackout. Pakistani officials used to blast the US's drone programs, which it declared to be direct affronts to its sovereignty. The rub? In all likelihood Pakistani brass have long secretly approved the shadow strikes, a begrudging complicity that's been widely reported in the press.
But publicly, at least, Pakistan seemed to be waging bold countermeasures to the hunter-killer campaigns. In response to an American drone strike gone awry, killing two dozen Pakistani soldiers stationed in eastern Afghanistan in late 2011, for example, Pakistan roadblocked shipments of NATO logistics from moving through the territory for about six months. It took a formal apology from the Americans to see Pakistan finally reopen its border, where supplies for the downsizing Afghan war sat, piling up.
Ever since, relations between the two countries have continued to salt, not least because of Pakistan's claims that American drones, which fly covert missions for both the Pentagon and CIA, are inadvertently slaughtering innocent civilians. But there was friction even prior to this. The unilateral raid that took out Osama bin Laden--an offensive that, go figure, relied heavily on intelligence scooped up via spy drone during the weeks preceding the nighttime raid--was another flashpoint. In retaliation, Pakistan booted the CIA from an airbase it had been loaning the spy agency.
Pakistan seemed committed, sort of, to shutting the whole thing down, once and for all. Speaking at the Aspen Security forum last July, Ambassador Sherry Rehman assured the audience that, "We will seek an end to drone strikes and there will be no compromise on that.”
This interactive map shows every known US drone strike in Pakistan as of July 2012. (Chris Kirk / Slate)
Which makes Pakistan's reticence over the recent uptick in strikes so conspicuous. In the first 11 days of 2013, US drones dropped Hellfire missiles on suspected terrorists in Pakistan's craggy tribal belt seven times. To Danger Room's counting, that makes "at least" 40 deaths on the year so far. Yet Islamabad hasn't issue any sort of condemnation. Not a peep. To hear that Pakistan has kept "noticeably muted," as the AP noted, over a rash of attacks to ring in yet another new year under American drones, is telling.
Strikes in Pakistan had actually been plateuing--dipping, even. So there could be any number of reasons as to the timing behind this most recent tribal belt blitz, and as to why Pakistan's doing and saying absolutely nothing about it.
But if you had to trace one of the more overarching motives, it would be the specter of John Brennan, Obama's top counterterrorism adviser. He was nominated on Monday to head up the CIA. So it's early yet. But it could be very well be that this flurry is an opening salvo to Brennan's likely approval to America's top spy. It's hard pressing to think that it would be beyond the administration to wage this kind of statement campaign. Or, for that matter, that it would be beyond Pakistan, who arguably has bared the brunt of the American drone effort to this point, to go quiet for fear of stoking even more Hellfire.
As director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Brennan has overseen the US's now-mythic drone kill list, a controversial catalogue that was first sketched last year in a New York Times piece and has since become the source of much debate in the US Supreme Court's rebuffing of a joint ACLU-NYT Freedom of Information Act request for the legal memo used to hunt down two American-born Yemenis, the cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son, with drones. (Both place in Yemen.) On pretty much all counts, then, Brennan is a drone evangelist. They don't call him Obama's "high priest" of targeted strikes for nothing.
It's how he's used the technology to mold the CIA from just an intelligence agency into something far more deadly, though, that has drone critics so hot and bothered, and rightly so.
Hima Shamsi, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project, told the Guardian how targeted killing program extended the CIA's extend reach in overseas activities into "morally and legally questionable behaviour," and that you could trace Brennan back to that.
"The CIA has morphed into a paramilitary organization with an expansive unlawful killing programme," Shamsi said.
Pakistan is going to stay in these crosshairs, and knows it, even if it'll just keep on approving strikes behind closed doors. Not saying it will, or anything.
But in a place like Pakistan, where three quarters of the population is now declared enemies of the US, can Islamabad stand to keep talking? That Brennan's sway is already seeing a rise in the US's use there of the so-called doubletap hit, itself a terrorist tactic that targets all those--first responders and family, as is often the case--who show up at to the scenes of still-smoldering drone blast sites, probably has Islamabad that much more braced. That his approval would kickstart a fully-droned new era for American national security can't help, either.
That is, until the same tools get into the hands of those the drone war is turning against the Americans.
Reach Brian at email@example.com. @thebanderson