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.”
This obviously required addressing the minor issue of violating another country’s sovereignty — a violation that was essentially allowed the moment the embargo placed on CIA killers in the wake of the Iran-Contra affair many decades back was lifted by President Bush. In around the 12 years since the lifting of the ban, the newfound authority has been repeatedly put to use. Many known militants have been killed and, in rare, unavoidable cases, Americans have also been targeted. The collateral damage is yet to be fully measured but whatever has been reported signifies huge loss of life.
Equipped with journalistic licence, Mazzetti is not compelled to outright condemn the darker aspects of the war. He leaves that job for activists like Medea Benjamin, as also certain aspects of the story he may have chosen not to detail yet. For instance, for a book focused so much on Pakistan and the ‘war on terror,’ Mazzetti is not tempted to even give a cursory glance to the allegations spawned by the murder of Benazir Bhutto — whose march towards another term in government was being viewed as having a direct impact on the ‘war on terror’. There is no mention of Bhutto in the book, not even a reference to how the American war-runners had reacted to her assassination, and only a fleeting glimpse of Baitullah Mehsud. This is surprising.
Nonetheless, Mazzetti is fair enough to help strengthen the negative opinion about the covert war — no more than a computer game for those directing the drones in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen from the safety of their control rooms in the United States, and a throwback to the thrills of the cold war for the ones who direct foot soldiers such as Davis.
Nor does Mazzetti make an attempt to paint the ISI as the villain. Bar an occasional Pakistani military officer who has good memories of his work with the CIA in the troubled northwest, The Way of the Knife seems to draw heavily on American sources of information even when it is discussing events taking place in Pakistan. Yet the bias has been contained to the American officials’ doubts about their Pakistani partners, and the writer leaves it to the reader to trace the betrayal, and the extent of it.
General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani is the one man who inspires Mazzetti to give some personal details. Inevitably, once again the trail of cigarette smoke he leaves everywhere he goes has been found worth documenting. If that oft-cited habit is a symbol of something, the book doesn’t crack this long-running mystery for us. More categorically, Kayani is shown to be commanding quite a lot of respect from the Americans and his relationship with Admiral Mike Mullen is perhaps the least problematic of all ties discussed in the book until Abbottabad happens: “Speaking from a phone outside the Situation Room, Mullen called Kayani and informed him of what had just happened. “Kayani already knew the basics. Hours earlier, he had taken a call from one of his aides, who told him about vague reports that a helicopter had crashed in Abbottabad. Kayani’s first thought was that Pakistan was under attack from India … By the time Mullen called Kayani the Pakistani general knew that Americans had been in his country.”
Relating the break-up of that relationship, in the wake of the September 2011 strike on a US military base in Afghanistan’s province Wardak, is when Mazzetti’s passages — mostly informed by fear, suspicion and irony — take on a mellow hue. It is the one rare occasion where his roller-coaster and by and large matter-of-fact narration is influenced by the sentiment of friendship: “The Wardak attack infuriated Mullen and convinced him that General Kayani had no sincere interest in curbing the military’s ties to militant groups like the Haqqanis ... The Wardak bombing was, for Mullen, proof that Pakistan was playing crooked.” A few days later, in his final congressional testimony as the chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, Mullen, “whom Pakistani officials considered to be one of their few remaining allies in Washington, made that statement: ‘the Haqqani network acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.’
The relationship was dead; the two men didn’t speak again after Mullen’s testimony. Each man felt he had been betrayed by the other.”
The reviewer is bureau chief, Dawn Lahore
The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth
(War on Terror)
By Mark Mazzetti
Penguin Press, US