Ben Emmerson’s ISI Shuffle

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by Joshua Foust on 3/18/2013 · 9 comments

The UN Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights, Ben Emmerson, conducted a three-day visit to Islamabad, Pakistan last week. And despite his stated purpose to investigate drone strikes, he didn’t actually talk to any of the agencies responsible for those strikes, or even visit strike sites:

During the course of the visit the Special Rapporteur met with officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Human Rights and other relevant entities including a senior representative of the Secretariat of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the Chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on Defence and Defence Production. He is particularly grateful for the assistance that was provided by the Minister for Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar and by the Foreign Secretary during his meetings with them.

The Special Rapporteur regrets that he did not have the opportunity to meet with representatives of the Pakistan Military or the ISI. However, he was informed that their position would be adequately reflected by consultations with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Defence.

Another way of putting this is that the Special Rapporteur was a willing subject of a Pakistani government information operation. And the results could not have helped them any more if he had deliberately tried to be their propagandist:

During the visit, the Government emphasized its consistently-stated position that drone strikes on its territory are counter-productive, contrary to international law, a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and that they should cease immediately.

The Special Rapporteur was informed by the Government that Pakistan does not consider the situation in FATA to amount to an armed conflict (whether international or non-international). To the contrary, Pakistan considers that its own military forces operating in the region are engaged in a law enforcement operation aimed at countering terrorism in support of the civilian administration.

The Government, including the Foreign Minister, emphasised to the Special Rapporteur that the principal threat posed by the Pakistani Taleban (TTP) and other terrorist groupings operating in FATA is directed at military and civilian targets of Pakistan itself and that the country has sustained very heavy losses and damage through acts of terrorism.

Couple things wrong here:

  • How do drones violate Pakistan’s sovereignty or operate without permission when they’re launched from airbases inside the territory of Pakistan?
  • The assertion that a conflict that’s killed over 40,000 people and caused billions of dollars in damage does not amount to an “armed conflict” under IHL is so laughable it’s almost sad.
  • The focus on the TTP, and not on the Haqqanis or al Qaeda, is telling — the Pakistani government loved it when the U.S. killed Baitullah Mehsud. They hate it when the U.S. kills its Haqqani proxies.
  • Given Pakistan’s habit of shelling its own people, sparking mini-refugee crises, calling its military campaigns “law enforcement operation” is offensive to common sense.

But alas, there’s more:

Officials stated that reports of continuing tacit consent by Pakistan to the use of drones on its territory by any other State are false, and confirmed that a thorough search of Government records had revealed no indication of such consent having been given. Officials also pointed to public statements by Pakistan at the United Nations emphasizing this position and calling for an immediate end to the use of drones by any other State on the territory of Pakistan.

In addition, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs informed the Special Rapporteur that since mid-2010 (and to date) the Government has regularly sent Notes Verbales to the US Embassy in Islamabad protesting the use of drones on the territory of Pakistan and emphasizing that Pakistan regards these strikes as a violation of its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and requiring the US to cease these strikes immediately. The Ministry informed the Special Rapporteur that these concerns were expressed in the context of a longstanding bilateral relationship and dialogue with the US that includes positive cooperation across a broad range of issues.

For detail’s sake: a note verbale is a diplomatic communication prepared in the third person and unsigned. It is not as formal as a letter of protest, and it carries no weight beyond signaling dissatisfaction.

Pakistan has never issued a formal letter of protest, nor has it explicitly withdrawn consent (or rejected drone strikes) in a signed memorandum — in any format that would be legally compelling.

When Pakistan says it has not given tacit consent to drone strikes, it is lying. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is lying. Let’s just say it: they are liars. The U.S. launches drones from inside Pakistan, using intelligence the Pakistani military and intelligence services provide for targeting.

It’s telling Ben Emmerson didn’t meet with any of the agencies that are actually responsible for drone strikes. Doing so would have given him a dramatically different impression of what’s going on.

I honestly thought Emmerson would be smarter than this. I’m genuinely disappointed to see him so willingly push the ISPR line on drones. To be little more than a propagandist. It’s yet another lost opportunity for the UN to do anything useful in this dispute.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Chris Woods March 18, 2013 at 10:43 am

Some interesting points, and historically Pakistan certainly granted permission. However all evidence points to permissions being revoked by 2011 at the latest. I’d welcome anything beyond hearsay to the contrary.

One claim for not releasing the OLC memos is that they’ll reveal sensitive agreements between the US and others. Certainly there’s an agreement with Yemen. But what if the OLC memos show there’s none with Pakistan? Now that would be a reason to keep something secret.

And where is your evidence that drones are flying from Pakistan? Since Shamsi was shut down and Jacobabad declared off-limits to US armed drones just where – exactly – are they flying from? Links, supporting evidence, most welcome. If you’re going to talk about this fabled ‘drone base’ being built near Peshawar then please source that for me (I think this actually refers to the expanded consulate being built down there – but it’s hard to tell.)

Joshua Foust March 18, 2013 at 10:47 am


The only hearsay is that Pakistan has withdrawn consent. Otherwise, everything from the presence of a half dozen airbases to the behavior of the Pakistani military to the active sharing of intelligence suggests Pakistan does consent.

Go back to the cable leaked in 2010. The deal was the government allows drones on the condition that they get to complain about them publicly. It’s served both sides well for a long time.

More importantly, when the MFA says things like a “thorough records search” shows no evidence of an agreement ever existing they are lying about it. So why would you then accept anything else they say, when they’re caught in a bald-faced lie?

Chris Woods March 18, 2013 at 11:39 am

Sorry Josh, but the evidence deficit is at your end. Pakistan’s PM, president, army chief, head of ISI and countless officials all say ‘no consent. ‘ Pakistan is one of the nations which has pushed for this UNHRC investigation.

We’re agreed that the US had permission in the past, though Musharraf has always described the agreement as an unwritten one. Gilani and co inherited that and ran with it. Yes, the wikileaks cables show complicity (dating to 2008, not 2010 when the cables were released, I recall). But for today? Find me a viable reference please, beyond Beltway wish-fulfillment, to the contrary. It’s worth going back and looking at that excellent WSJ piece which boiled down present-day ‘consent’ to an unanswered monthly fax and the fact that Pakistan hasn’t shot down any drones.

And do you have evidence or sourced indications of US armed drones presently operating from Pakistani airbases? And of intel sharing presently taking place?

I’m pretty sure the answers to all of the above are ‘No.’ I know you worry about Emmerson being the victim of a propaganda sting. But with all these unsubstantiated claims you risk the same charges being applied to yourself.

Joshua Foust March 18, 2013 at 12:08 pm

Sorry Chris, we don’t leap from “Pakistan agrees to drones but reserves the right to publicly condemn them” to “Pakistan has publicly condemned them so they’re illegal” without a LOT of data to suggest the actual agreement has been withdrawn.

When I’ve asked about it, officials from multiple agencies have insisted that Pakistan has never formally withdrawn consent or denied permission for the strikes to continue. Each one, to a T, describes the messaging from Islamabad as part of their original agreement, which was designed to give the Pakistani government cover for the strikes so blame is offloaded onto the U.S.

I’m sure you can understand why I’m unwilling to identify each of those sources, but the message is fairly unanimous, to a degree that’s actually surprised me and moderated my original opposition to strikes.

None of this justifies the strike program — as you know I’ve written critically of it. But Pakistan’s appeals to sovereignty and consent are by far the weakest and least persuasive way to get the strikes to end.

Reason11 March 18, 2013 at 8:27 pm

I was actually waiting for US spin to come back. Fact is Pakistan has now claimed as loudly as possible that they dont allow these strikes, if US has documentary proof to contrary they need to bring it on table or stop insinuating that they have some covert understanding with someone in pak establishment. Pak army or ISI can’t authorize a tourist visa, let alone a drone invitation to their soil. Even if US has a junior army officer level clearence it wouldnt be considered a lawful approval by anyone.

anan March 20, 2013 at 2:22 pm

Reason11, would you agree that Pakistan did authorize the drone strikes through 2011?

There appears to have been a soft coup within Pakistan. Most Pakistani foreign and defense policy decisions seem to be made by the General Staff of the Pakistani Army.

“Pak army or ISI can’t authorize a tourist visa, let alone a drone invitation to their soil.”
What is next, another new Saturday Night Live music video substituting General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?:

anan March 20, 2013 at 2:12 pm

Joshua, the US clearly had Pakistani Army consent through 2011. Are you saying that you have confirmation that the consent continues through March, 2013?

From what I can gather, it seems like US Pakistani relations have been at an all time low since the analysis of the OBL data mine.

On another note, I do not like the drone strikes. A better solution in my view is to give the NDS drones, turboprop and external defense projection capacity and let them do their thing. And then hypocritically express surprise and shock. Similar to how Reagan responded when Israel bombed Saddam’s nuclear program in 1981.

An even better solution would be to publicly offer Pakistan an internationally funded $100 billion Marshall Plan in return for Pakistan transforming their country. [The initial Holbrooke idea killed in inter-agency.]

anan March 20, 2013 at 2:15 pm

The NDS recently stopped 8 thousand kilograms of explosives from going of in Kabul, that would have leveled people within 1 km of the epicenter. Word is that Sirajuddin’s people were involved. Does anyone have any indications of ISI Directorate involvement?

Realist Writer March 24, 2013 at 12:49 pm

Hey, if Joshua Foust says Pakistan is lying, then it is lying. Especially if Joshua Foust bolds “lying”. End of story. There’s no way, NO WAY, that a pundit could ever be wrong about anything, ever.

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