U.S. Disavows 2 Drone Strikes Over Pakistan

PNS_Mehran_thumb[1]When news of the two latest drone strikes emerged from Pakistan’s tribal belt in early February, it seemed to be business as usual by the CIA.

Local and international media reports carried typical details: swarms of American drones had swooped into remote areas, killing up to nine people, including two senior commanders of Al Qaeda.

In Islamabad, Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry lodged an official protest with the American Embassy.

Yet there was one problem, according to three American officials with knowledge of the program: The United States did not carry out those attacks.

“They were not ours,” said one of the officials. “We haven’t had any kinetic activity since January.”

What exactly took place in those remote tribal villages, far from outside scrutiny, is unclear. But the Americans’ best guess is that one or possibly both of the strikes were carried out by the Pakistani military and falsely attributed to the CIA to avoid criticism from the Pakistani public.

E-mail and phone messages seeking comment from the Pakistani military were not returned.

If the American version is true, it is a striking irony: In the early years of the drone campaign, the Pakistani Army falsely claimed responsibility for American drone strikes in an attempt to mask C.I.A. activities on its soil. Now, the Americans suggest, the Pakistani military may be using the same program to disguise its own operations.

More broadly, the phantom attacks underscore the longstanding difficulty of gaining reliable information about America’s drone program in the remote and largely inaccessible tribal belt — particularly at a time when the program is under sharp scrutiny in Washington.

For the past month, John O. Brennan, President Obama’s counterterrorism adviser and nominee to lead the C.I.A., has been dogged by Congressional questions about the drone program’s lack of transparency, particularly when it comes to killing American citizens abroad.

The biggest obstacle to confirming details of the strikes is their location: the strikes usually hit remote, hostile and virtually closed-off areas. Foreign reporters are barred from the tribal belt, and the handful of local journalists who operate there find themselves vulnerable to pressure from both the military and the Taliban.

That murkiness has often suited the purposes of both the C.I.A. and the Pakistani military. It allows the Americans to conduct drone strikes behind a curtain of secrecy, largely shielded from public oversight and outside scrutiny. For the Pakistanis, it allows them to play both sides: publicly condemning strikes, while quietly supporting others, like the missile attack that killed the Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in 2009.

Still, the information vacuum also places American officials at a disadvantage when it comes to answering accusations that the drone strikes kill large numbers of innocent civilians alongside bona fide militants. State Department officials have complained that they cannot effectively counter civilian death claims they believe are hugely inflated because the program is classified — a subject of lively debate inside the administration, one official said.

The private controversy over the latest strikes, however, suggested another phenomenon at work: the manipulation of the actual drone reports themselves.

The two strikes, which took place on Feb. 6 in North Waziristan and Feb. 8 in South Waziristan, went unremarked on largely because they appeared so run of the mill.

Small Pakistani news agencies and international television networks, including NBC and Al Jazeera, carried common-sounding details: accounts of multiple American drones hovering overhead, estimates of the number of missiles fired, accounts of the rescue effort by local civilians and quotes from Pakistani military officials in the tribal belt or nearby Peshawar.

“The compound was completely destroyed. The militants had surrounded the area after the attack,” one official told Agence France-Presse after the second explosion, in Babar Ghar, near Ladha, in South Waziristan.

Some reports, attributed to Pakistani officials, said the dead included two Qaeda commanders, identified as Abu Majid al-Iraqi and Sheikh Abu Waqas. Other reports said four Uzbek militants had died.

“The Pakistan Air Force does not generally undertake stand-alone strikes such as these because it is not equipped with the appropriate strike weapons,” a Pakistani military source said.

The American narrative of those strikes is very different.

Two senior United States officials said there had been no American involvement in the attacks. A third official said the C.I.A. had not paid the reports much attention because no American forces had been involved. But that official said American intelligence pointed to the Pakistan Air Force as having conducted the first strike, probably as part of a military operation against Pakistani Taliban militants in the neighboring Orakzai tribal agency.

he second attack was more mysterious. “It could have been the Pakistani military,” the official said. “It could have been the Taliban fighting among themselves. Or it could have been simply bad reporting.”

Few issues antagonize the relationship between Pakistan and the United States as much as the drone program does — or encapsulate the often contradictory, smoke-and-mirrors nature of the military-to-military relationship.

In public, both Pakistani military and government officials routinely and vehemently condemn the strikes. But in private, a handful of senior Pakistani generals are “read into” the program, according to American officials.

The United States gives the Pakistani military 30 minutes’ advance notice of drones strikes in South Waziristan. However, it gives no notice in North Waziristan, considered a bigger hub of Taliban and Qaeda militancy, and also a major base for the Haqqani Network, which carries out attacks in Afghanistan, one senior American official said.

If American claims are correct, the United States has not conducted a drone strike in Pakistan since Jan. 10, marking the longest pause of the campaign since November 2011, when the C.I.A. stopped strikes for 55 days after American warplanes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in a disputed border clash.

Some analysts believe the lull may be connected to Mr. Brennan’s nomination, pointing to a similar slowdown in Yemen, the other major theater of American drone operation. Others point to more prosaic explanations, like intelligence delays or bad weather.

“The whole thing seems to be on pause at the moment,” said Chris Woods of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a watchdog group that tallies the drone strikes, mostly using news reports.

If one thing is clear about the drones, it is that all sides — Pakistanis, Americans and the Taliban — have an interest in manipulating reports about their impact.

Mr. Woods said he would take American claims of noninvolvement in the February attacks “with a pinch of salt,” citing the details about the Qaeda deaths as potential evidence of C.I.A. involvement.

But, Mr. Woods added, his group had earmarked reports of about a dozen drone strikes as suspicious in recent years, and had marked them as such on its Web site.

Viewed from Washington, a handful of erroneously reported strikes may seem inconsequential. According to most estimates, the C.I.A. has carried out about 330 drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal belt since 2004, the vast majority of them in the past five years. (Though the American military also operates drones, officials insist that the program in Pakistan is solely conducted by the C.I.A.)

Yet in Pakistan, they carry greater significance, igniting huge and sometimes violent anti-American demonstration that make drones a toxic subject for generals and politicians alike. But the American claims about the two attacks this month suggest that they may, also, be trying to have the best of both worlds.