Muhammed Muheisen/AP

Why the U.S. Should Wage Its Pakistani Drone War in Public

America is getting a raw deal by doing Islamabad's dirty work in the dark, while paying for it in the public relations battle. By David Rohde

Six days after an American drone strike killed the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Pakistani politicians are accusing the United States of “murder.” And a militant leader responsible for attacks that killed hundreds, if not thousands, of Pakistani civilians is being viewed as a victim.

On one level, the response was nothing new in the warped, post-2001 relationship between Pakistan and the United States. For 12 years, interactions between these purported “allies” have been marked by distrust, recriminations and lies.

American officials should admit that covert U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan are now counterproductive. The strikes cause Pakistanis to vilify the United States, glorify militants and coddle duplicitous elements of the Pakistani military.

For the last decade, the Bush and Obama administrations have allowed Pakistani military officials to lie to their own people about Pakistan’s tacit support of the strikes. In exchange for the ability to carry out drone strikes, the United States serves as the Pakistan military’s punching bag.

Pakistan’s military and its ultra-nationalist allies blame foreign powers for the country’s woes. They whip up anti-American street demonstrations and say that American drones kill only civilians. They declare that civilian politicians who threaten the military’s power are “American agents.”

The only thing surprising about the dynamic is Washington’s wholehearted embrace of it. Since 2001, the United States has provided Pakistan with a staggering $17 billion in military aid, despite reports that the funds were being pilfered.

In an increasingly absurd stance, the Obama administration refuses to officially acknowledge the more than 300 CIA drone strikes carried out in Pakistan since 2004. Instead, it describes the strikes in off-the-record briefings and refuses to give a detailed accounting of how many of the estimated 3,000 people killed have been civilians.

(Read more: Five Ways Obama Can Fix Drones Right Now)

“This whole confused, convoluted discourse would change,” Husain Haqqani, the former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, told me Monday, “if the Americans were a little forthcoming in officially declaring who was targeted and how many people were killed.”

The essential problem is Washington’s appeasement of Pakistan’s military.

Last month, the Washington Post obtained top secret CIA documents and Pakistani diplomatic memos showing that Pakistani military officials — even while bitterly complaining about drone strikes — had secretly been choosing some of the targets. Pakistani officials also received regular briefings about the results of the strikes.

The story confirmed “one of the more poorly kept national security secrets in Washington and Islamabad” — that American drones operate in Pakistan with the tacit approval of the Pakistani military.

In the early years of the program, American drones actually flew out of Pakistani military bases. If the Pakistani air force really wanted to ground the slow-moving, propeller-driven aircraft, it could simply shoot one down.

The documents also included evidence that the Pakistani military is playing what analysts have long called a “double game.” Even as it claims to be an ally in the struggle against terrorism, the military is sheltering militants — Afghan Taliban and other jihadists — whom they consider to be useful proxies against archrival India.

One memo described how former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morrell played a video for Pakistani officials of a man on a motorcycle arriving at a bomb-making center that Washington had asked the Pakistani military to shut down.

“Rather than launching raids, the Pakistanis were suspected of tipping off the militants,” the Post reported, who dispersed their materials in a “pickup truck, two station wagons and at least two motorcycles to multiple locations.”

The documents also revealed American duplicity and tight control. Though the Pakistanis choose some targets, the CIA decides when and where all strikes are carried out and informs Pakistani officials about the results afterward. And America’s spies made little effort to track civilian deaths.

“One table estimates that as many as 152 ‘combatants’ were killed and 26 were injured during the first six months of 2011,” the Post described a classified document. “Lengthy columns with spaces to record civilian deaths or injuries contain nothing but zeroes.”

As I’ve long argued, drone strikes should continue, but they should be made public and conducted by the U.S. military. The American military’s system for investigating reports of civilian deaths and paying compensation that exists in Afghanistan should be applied to American drone strikes in Pakistan and around the world. And the strikes should be coordinated with civilian and military officials in Pakistan and other countries.

In an excellent column two weeks ago, Daniel Markey of the Council on Foreign Relations called for the United States to “Let Pakistan’s Taliban talks fail without us.” Allowing the talks to proceed and likely fail, Markey argued, would expose average Pakistanis to the hardline demands of the Pakistani Taliban.

Instead, the CIA carried out the covert drone strike Friday that killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban. The move played perfectly into a right-wing Pakistani narrative of the United States as a malevolent opponent of peace.

In Haqqani’s new book, “Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding,” the former ambassador describes an attempt by the Obama administration to strike a new course in Pakistan.

(Three disclosures:  Haqqani and I worked together when he was a freelance reporter for the New York Times in 2002 and 2003. When he was the Pakistani ambassador in Washington, Haqqani tried unsuccessfully to win my release when I was kidnapped by the Taliban in 2008.  Events I witnessed during seven months in captivity in Pakistan’s tribal areas made me deeply skeptical of the seriousness of the Pakistani army’s efforts to crack down on militancy.)

Haqqani’s book, which was published on Tuesday, describes President Barack Obama’s 2009 letter where he tried to convince Pakistani officials to shift away from their decades-old vision of India as their primary national security threat. Obama offered a long-term alliance and billions in aid in exchange for a serious attempt to eradicate militancy in Pakistan.

Pakistani military officials — who have used the threat of India to dominate Pakistan for decades — rebuffed the overture. Civilian leaders feared embracing the United States in the face of Pakistan’s sweeping anti-Americanism, a public sentiment fueled, in part, by the Pakistani military.

In a brave, incisive and blunt critique of both countries, Haqqani, who was accused of being an American agent and forced to resign in 2011, calls out fellow Pakistanis.

“Pakistan cannot become a regional leader in South Asia while it supports terrorism,” Haqqani wrote. “To think that the United States would indefinitely provide economic and military assistance in return for partial support of U.S. objectives is delusional.”

But Haqqani also chastises American policymakers for believing that hurling billions in aid at the Pakistani military will change its institutional perspective.

“Americans must also overcome their fantasy that aid always translates into leverage and that personal relations with foreign officials can change what those officials consider to be their national priorities,” Haqqani wrote. “If the Pakistanis have been reticent in their cooperation, Americans have resorted only to half-hearted sanctions.”

Haqqani is right. Whatever one thinks of the Pakistani military’s duplicity, they have behaved with remarkable consistency over the last 12 years.

Sadly, so has the United States.