- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The government of Pakistan is demanding the United States cut back on the number of CIA drone operations in the country. The unspoken truth is that what Islamabad really wants is a fleet of drones to call their own.

Recent reports of disaffection between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the CIA blame much of the tension on the issue of civilian casualties from drone operations. A March 17 drone strike in North Waziristan killed 38 people whom Pakistan intelligence initially said were militants. The next day, however, Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani claimed they were “peaceful citizens,” and mass demonstrations ensued throughout the country to protest. Blame was placed squarely on America, but the fact is these operations would be impossible without close coordination from Islamabad. If mistakes were made, they were not made by the CIA.

The recent contretemps over CIA contractor Raymond Davis - who was detained after killing two Pakistanis in Lahore in late January and later released - is also cited as a point of contention. But whether Mr. Davis was involved with the drone program or not, the ISI surely knows which CIA operatives are active in Pakistan, and for all we know, Mr. Davis was working closely with Pakistani colleagues when his operation went wrong. The government in Islamabad will not publicly acknowledge that it has been facilitating the drone strikes for years, that its agents have been helping with targeting on the ground, and that the ISI is involved in almost every aspect of this mission. Backside covering aside, it would be impossible for the program to exist otherwise.

Washington and Islamabad have been negotiating how to equip Pakistan with drones of their own, but part of the problem is that the ISI can’t decide what it wants. Requirements for types, numbers and capabilities keep shifting. The United States is reticent to share the most sophisticated drone technology but must also face the fact that Pakistan has the ultimate leverage over the drone program: Islamabad can demand that the CIA shut it down. Since covert targeted killings have become the centerpiece of President Obama’s approach to counterterrorism - it’s the “only game in town,” according to CIA Director Leon Panetta - losing the drone bases in Pakistan would be a severe blow to U.S. national security. The White House is addicted to targeted killings and has no Plan B.

The current controversy is just another round in the continuing negotiations between Washington and Islamabad, but America comes out looking worse each time this game is played. Islamabad continually distances itself from the drone strikes to stay on the right side of domestic public opinion. Plausible deniability is one thing, but making it appear that the United States is conducting rogue operations without the permission of Pakistan’s government is going over the line. Shifting complete blame to the United States only makes Americans less popular in a country where the Land of the Free already gets some of the lowest public-approval numbers in the world.

Islamabad has every right to set the terms under which the CIA will conduct combined operations inside Pakistan. But pretending the Pakistan government is somehow removed from the day-to-day aspects of this program prompts the question: Who do they think they are fooling?