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The Christmas Drone Truce – CIA Stops Airstrikes in Pakistan

Apparently the CIA has taken the rare step of acknowledging the sovereign rights of another country, as well as the existence of public opinion and blowback, by suspending drone attacks in Pakistan, according to the LA Times. They claim that the hiatus is in its sixth week.

In an effort to mend badly frayed relations with Pakistan, the CIA has suspended drone missile strikes on gatherings of low-ranking militants believed to be involved in cross-border attacks on U.S. troops or facilities in Afghanistan, current and former U.S. officials say.

The undeclared halt in CIA attacks, now in its sixth week, is aimed at reversing a sharp erosion of trust after a series of deadly incidents, including the mistaken attack by U.S. gunships that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last month.

The pause also comes amid an intensifying debate in the Obama administration over the future of the CIA’s covert drone war in Pakistan. The agency has killed dozens of Al Qaeda operatives and hundreds of low-ranking fighters there since the first Predator strike in 2004, but the program has infuriated many Pakistanis.

First of all, I’m not sure that the pause is in its sixth week. Here’s a BBC report on a drone attack in North Waziristan that killed six Pakistanis, dated November 15. However, the Pakistani press has reported on a lull in drone attacks since November 26, when the NATO raid on a Pakistani military outpost killed 24. So I’m willing to believe that we’re at the end of the fourth week of a pause in operations, and if the North Waziristan attack was the last, then we’re in that six-week territory.

It’s certainly not the case that the US has shut down their drone operations around the world entirely. Just this week a drone killed a relative of a top Al Qaeda leader in Yemen. So I guess the lesson here is that, yes, if years and years worth of airstrikes cause anger and hatred for the US throughout a sovereign nation, and threaten to destabilize its government, and create more militants than you kill, then intelligence analysts will begin to consider whether those airstrikes are counter-productive. Bully. A former official quoted in the piece mused, “A lot of people wonder whether we can keep trying to kill our way out of this problem. There are people who are really questioning, ‘Where does all of this end?'” Ya think?

But it’s not necessarily the case that the CIA will shutter the drone program in Pakistan. What they really want to do is hand it over to JSOC.

Some U.S. intelligence officials are urging the CIA to cut back the paramilitary role it has assumed since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to refocus on espionage. They suggest handing the mission to the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command, which flies its own drones and conducts secret counter-terrorism operations in Yemen and Somalia.

Let’s give the covert operations back to the covert operators! It’s quite a rallying cry. And it’s just like David Petraeus to want to keep his agency’s hands clean.

So I don’t know if we have a moment of enlightenment for the futility of drone strikes for our national security, or not. All I know is that drone operators may get to control only three planes at a time now instead of four.

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David Dayen

David Dayen