The CIA's drone war is escalating in Pakistan and may have the potential to quickly slip out of control.
54 people were killed in U.S. drone-launched missile attacks, the Associated Press reported on Friday.
Three American missile attacks killed 54 alleged militants Friday close to the Afghan border, an unusually high number of victims that included commanders of a Taliban-allied group that were holding a meeting, Pakistani officials said.
The attacks took place in the Khyber tribal region, which has been rarely struck by American missiles before over the last three years. That could indicate a possible expansion of the CIA-led covert campaign of drone strikes inside Pakistani territory.
These attacks coincide with news that "the CIA yanked its top spy out of Pakistan after his cover was blown and his life threatened".
The Washington Post quoted an anonymous U.S. intelligence official saying the station chief was recalled to CIA headquarters because "terrorist threats against him in Pakistan were of such a serious nature that it would be imprudent not to act."
On Monday, The Guardian reported a Pakistani journalist is suing the CIA for a drone strike that killed two relatives. Karim Khan is seeking $500 million in damages from the United States for 'murdering' his son and brother. Khan says his relatives killed in a December 31, 2009 drone attack were his brother Asif Iqbal, a secondary school teacher, and his 18-year-old son Zahinullah Khan, a guard at a girls' school, the Daily Times of Pakistan reported. The men were killed in their home near Mir Ali in North Waziristan.'
The cover for the CIA station chief in Islamabad was blown when Khan named him in the lawsuit alongside U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and CIA director Leon Panetta. On Monday, Khan spoke to reporters outside the Islamabad police station trying to prevent the CIA's Islamabad station chief's exit from Pakistan. According to The Guardian, Khan said:
"We appeal to the authorities not to let Jonathan Banks escape from Pakistan... He should be arrested and executed in this country."
If Khan's allegations are correct, the deaths of his son and brother add to the growing number of dead civilians as a result of the CIA's drone war inside Pakistan. With the three attacks on Friday that left 54 people dead, the probability that all killed were militants is likely zero. The missiles were fired in those three attacks targeted vehicles in Tirah Valley and two villages: Speen Darang and Narai Baba.
According to the LA Times, Khan's lawyer, Shahzad Akbar, said on Friday that the he learned the CIA chief name from two Pakistani newspaper reporters and he "included it in the lawsuit because he believed the man should be punished for civilian deaths caused by the drone strikes."
Akbar dismissed "security concerns" for the CIA official, The Guardian reported. He is "fleeing the possibility of prosecution" accruing to the Khan's lawyer. "This is just diplomatic language they are using. Banks is a liability to the CIA because he's likely to be called to court. They want to save him, and themselves, the embarrassment," Akbar said.
Earlier this month, Pakistani newspaper, The News reported the CIA station chief may not have diplomatic immunity:
The station chief of the CIA in Pakistan, Jonathan Banks, is on business visa and does not enjoy diplomatic immunity, the fact that will possibly haunt him in Islamabad in the days to come as a resident of North Waziristan is all set to sue him in the court of law for drone attacks that killed the near and dear ones of the tribal resident.
American officials, according to the Washington Post believe the Pakistani reporters were "deliberately" fed the CIA agent's name by Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan's spy agency. One anonymous U.S. official believes the deliberate exposure of the agents' undercover identity was done by the ISI in "retaliation for a civil lawsuit filed in New York last month accusing ISI chief Ahmed Shuja Pasha of being involved in the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai".
An ISI official said he did not know who had leaked the station chief's name. "That is a mystery I would love to solve," he said.
Khan told the BBC in November that he was forced to file a lawsuit because no one was responsive to his attempts to get justice.
"For the past year, I've been knocking on the doors of the local political administration, and the government, but have received no justice," he said.
"Therefore I have now decided to take this legal remedy."
According to Asia Despatch, Khan is the first victim family member to go so far to seek justice. "This is a clear case of brutal human rights violations as my house was targeted on false tip off by unknown intelligence and caused immense damage to life and property of my family," Khan said.
He pleaded that he approached all concerned Pakistani government quarters but did not get any justice and therefore decided to adopt a legal course against American government and the CIA chief in Islamabad…
“The CIA Chief in Islamabad Jonathan Banks should be put on Exit Control List as he is responsible of killing my son and brother until local courts gives me justice”. Extremely emotional Karim told Asia Desptach.
Karim Khan is the first member of any drone victim family who came up in media and sought legal compensation against the damages caused by the drones strikes in Pakistan.
Khan inability to garner justice from the Pakistani government may not be surprising. According to alleged U.S. diplomatic cables disclosed by Wikileaks, Pakistan quietly approved of drone attacks within Pakistan:
In a cable sent in August 2008, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan at the time, Anne Patterson, recounted a meeting with Interior Minister Rehman Malik and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani. It coincided with a military operation in one of the restive frontier territories.
Patterson wrote, "Malik suggested we hold off alleged Predator attacks until after the Bajaur operation. The PM brushed aside Rehman's remarks and said, 'I don't care if they do it as long as they get the right people. We'll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it.' "
The Pakistani tribal region has been "targeted more than 100 times this year alone by the CIA's armed Predator and Reaper drones flying overhead", ABC News reported. More than double the number of attacks made by drones in 2009.
An estimated 1,320 and 2,049 people have been killed in drone missile strikes in Pakistan since 2004 according to the New America Foundation. Only a quarter of those killed were classified as "non-militants". An estimated 558 to 935 people have been killed in drone missile strikes this year in Pakistan. The New America Foundation suggests "non-militants" killed in 2010 is "more like six percent".
However in a 2010 report, Civilian Harm and Conflict in Northwest Pakistan (pdf), the Campaign For Innocent Victims In Conflict (CIVIC) noted:
Anonymous US officials insist that civilian casualties caused by drone strikes are minimal. CIVIC’s research and that of other independent non- government organizations indicates that the number of civilians killed and injured by drones is higher than the US admits...
The number of civilians killed or injured by US drone strikes is fiercely disputed and impossible to independently verify, though evidence suggests that casualties are significant.
"The US has not clarified who is a legal target, meaning where its lawyers, intelligence officials or commanders, and drone operators draw the line between combatant and noncombatant," the CIVIC report stated.
Saeed Shah of McClatchy Newspapers reported that "victims of U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan took to the streets for the first time" in Islamabad last week.
[Last] Friday's small but fiery protest was hijacked by hard-line mullahs and other religious hotheads, who denounced the CIA and the Pakistani government and demanded an immediate end to the drone strikes. Those who addressed the rally included Abdul Aziz Ghazi, the cleric from Islamabad's radical Red Mosque, who's voiced support for al-Qaida in the past, and Hameed Gul, a former Pakistani spymaster who gives strong vocal support to the Afghan Taliban. Some 300 people attended the rally.
"Today the spirit of jihad is alive in the people. We should not be afraid of dying," said Ghazi...
Last week, fifteen others joined Khan's lawsuit. They either said they had been "injured in the attacks or who claimed to have had family members killed" in CIA drone missile strikes.
Khan's lawsuit, the "unusually high number of victims" in Friday's attacks, and the "possible expansion" of CIA drone attacks all could combine to escalate the tension and hostility among the Pakistani population against the United States open, but undeclared war within their country. It seemingly took two weeks for the CIA to recall their station head from Islamabad. If escalating drone attacks do finally piss off the majority of Pakistanis, the next time the CIA recalls its personnel from Islamabad it may be a tad more haphazard and hasty.