WASHINGTON/NEW YORK: The outgoing US Ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron P. Munter, found the drone strike-driven American policy unacceptable and complained to his colleagues that “he didn’t realise his main job was to kill people”, a colleague told The New York Times.
An extensive report in Tuesday's newspaper says that President Barack Obama has taken personal responsibility for drone attacks. He approves every name on the target list, reviewing their biographies and the evidence against them, and then authorises “lethal action without hand-wringing”.
The report says that Mr Obama’s focus on drone strikes has made it impossible to forge the new relationship with the Muslim world that he promised in his June 2009 speech in Cairo.
“Both Pakistan and Yemen are arguably less stable and more hostile to the United States than when Mr Obama became president,” the report notes.
In Pakistan, according to the report, Mr Obama had approved not only “personality” strikes aimed at named, high-value terrorists, but “signature” strikes that targeted training camps and suspicious compounds in areas controlled by militants.
Some State Department officials, however, have complained to the White House that the criteria used by the CIA for identifying a terrorist “signature” were too lax.
“Signature strikes in Pakistan were killing a large number of terrorist suspects, even when CIA analysts were not certain beforehand of their presence.”Dennis C. Blair, director of national intelligence until he was fired in May 2010, told the newspaper that discussions inside the White House of long-term strategy against Al Qaeda were sidelined by the intense focus on strikes. “The steady refrain in the White House was, ‘This is the only game in town’ — reminded me of body counts in Vietnam,” said Mr Blair, a retired admiral who began his Navy service during the Vietnam War.
“Mr Blair's criticism, dismissed by White House officials as personal pique, nonetheless resonates inside the government,” the report adds.
The report points out that the counting method the Obama administration uses allows it to claim that civilian deaths in these strikes are very low.Under this approach people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Al Qaeda operative, are also considered enemy combatants.
This accounting method has so troubled some administration officials outside the CIA that they have brought their concerns to the White House. One called it “guilt by association” that has led to “deceptive” estimates of civilian casualties.
The report notes that the case of Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, was problematic on two fronts. The CIA worried that Mr Mehsud, whose group mainly targeted the Pakistan government, did not meet the Obama administration’s criteria for targeted killing: he was not an imminent threat to the United States. But Pakistani officials wanted him dead, and the American drone programme rested on their tacit approval. The issue was resolved after the president and his advisers found that he represented a threat, if not to the homeland, to American personnel in Pakistan.
Then, in August 2009, the CIA director, Leon E. Panetta, told the White House that the agency had Mr Mehsud in its sights. But taking out the Pakistani Taliban leader, Mr Panetta warned, did not meet Mr Obama's standard of “near certainty” of no innocents being killed. In fact, a strike would certainly result in such deaths: he was with his wife at his in-laws’ home.
President Obama told the CIA to take the shot, and Mr Mehsud was killed, along with his wife and, by some reports, other family members as well, the report adds.