Everyone knew how the drones came about, long before the Predators’ route to Pakistan and elsewhere was acknowledged, and before some of us were able to bring ourselves to protest the loss of innocent lives by rising above our tolerance for collateral damage. “Things fall out of the sky all the time,” Mark Mazzetti quotes General Pervez Musharraf in The Way of the Knife at the outset of the chapter that recalls the first drone strike in Pakistan in June 2004 that killed Nek Muhammad.
Garlanded by the Pakistani administration one day and unwanted the next, Nek Muhammad was just one point on the long, treacherous road on which the interests of the two sides had converged. From Mazzetti’s account, it was business turning sour, at the beginning of which all Pakistan wanted was to make a few bucks and see America leave as fast as possible.
The Pakistani emphasis from the start, the book points out, was to distinguish certain elements within the Taliban from the ‘other’ Taliban and Al Qaeda. The same good militants-bad militants strain that provided the reason for so much heated debate later on. “Musharraf hadn’t fundamentally shifted Pakistan’s foreign policy as mush as he had reprised a deal that General Muhammad Ziaul Haq … had struck with the Americans in the 1980s,” Mazzetti writes. “Musharraf would help the United States get what it wanted in Afghanistan, and Pakistan would be paid handsomely.”
The ties were destined to be strained and as rumours abounded and graduated to the status of popular truth, everyone could sense the spy on the prowl, long before Raymond Davis hit Lahore big time in 2011. What Davis blew up was the thinnest veneer of secrecy wrapped around the new breed of CIA troubleshooters. It was only incidental that he shot dead a couple of Pakistani citizens and was responsible for the death of another in the ensuing road accident, as also for the suicide of the widow of one of his victims.
The link was there for anyone to see even before the Davis incident ostensibly alerted the Pakistani security personnel to the presence of foreign boots on the ground. Only the blanks needed to be filled in. Along with the literature that has appeared before and since, Mazzetti’s is an assiduously compiled account that strings together some of the missing parts in the puzzle.
It is a substantive, engaging and even sympathetic account, but there is always room to expand the picture; and these days, new pieces come at a rattling pace. Not taking anything away from Mazzetti, a member of The New York Times team with a Pulitzer to his credit, given the speed at which secrets are revealed and allowed to be revealed, in time other information will come to the fore, taking us deeper inside the offices where policy is framed and new principles arrive to complete their span of life.
The operation thrives on something as basic as suspicion, of the enemies, of allies (in this case suspicion of Pakistan’s Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence) and before that, of the partners at home, as manifest in the frictions between the CIA and Pentagon that run through this book.
The CIA-Pentagon ties lead to duplication of work and confusion. But the prime question is: should intelligence agents, even soldiers, be allowed to act as assassins? After years of debate, the answer is as eerily simple as it must have been when man had his first conflict: it is the need that determines the means and everything is justified in a war, declared or covert.
The Way of the Knife is a tale full of intrigues and it bears witness to its due share of contradictions. The book begins with Raymond Davis, ex-Blackwater and now a CIA agent who the Americans finally manage to free from the grasp of their uneasy Pakistani allies upon payment of head money for the men he killed. On the other hand are the non-Americans who cannot be extended the same facility. Towards the end, Mazzetti discusses Dr Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani citizen the Americans wanted to rescue but couldn’t quite find a way to save from prison. Apart from a few million given to him as a ‘CIA source,’ Dr Afridi gets from his CIA handler in Pakistan a warning of the impending danger. Apparently, it is some time later that he actually comes to know who he has delivered to the United States through his polio vaccination drive in Abbottabad.
Between Davis and Dr Afridi, Mazzetti makes a very readable presentation on the transformation — or actually, a kind of restoration — of the CIA from being just an intelligence-gathering network to an organisation assigned, under a presidential decree, the duties of taking out those creating trouble for America. It is no surprise that Abdul Qadeer Khan makes an appearance pretty early into the story, on the list with names such as Mamoun Darkazanli, “a Syrian who the CIA believed had helped organise the September 11 attacks,” who the Bush administration had “marked for death.” “It was a cold, late fall day in 2001, just after President George W. Bush had signed a secret order giving the CIA power it had lost in the 1970s, after a series of grisly and sometimes comic revelations about CIA assassination attempts,” writes Mazzetti. This was soon after 9/11 and the agency had already progressed to a point where they could photograph Khan: “the CIA was making an eerie, unmistakable point: we can get close enough to take their pictures, so we can get close enough to kill.”