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Why the Latest Snowden Leaks about Pakistan Are Scary

In a blockbuster story in The Washington Post, Greg Miller, Craig Whitlock and Barton Gellman detail more aspects of the United States's so called "black budget," which was revealed by Edward Snowden in leaks to the newspaper. Today's long piece is about the United States's strained relationship with Pakistan, and offers some fresh detail about the country's secretive nuclear program. As the story notes, "Pakistan appears at the top of charts listing critical U.S. intelligence gaps. It is named as a target of newly formed analytic cells. And fears about the security of its nuclear program are so pervasive that a budget section on containing the spread of illicit weapons divides the world into two categories: Pakistan and everybody else." The real importance of the piece, however, is what it indirectly explains: namely, that even if the Pakistanis follow our wish and wholeheartedly pursue terrorist groups and Taliban elements, there is bound to be serious collateral damage, and a host of fresh problems.

For years now, the United States has begged the Pakistani military and intelligence service (ISI) to cut all ties to terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Pakistan itself. The new prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, has pledged a dialogue with the Taliban, however, and although the army chief--the most powerful man in the country--has called for strong action against terrorist groups, there is little doubt that elements in the military and ISI have maintained a relationship with many of these militant organizations. The purpose of this double-game, which has been going on for over a decade, is to ensure a Pakistani (read: Taliban) presence in Afghanistan as a hedge against Indian influence, and to maintain that same influence in the disputed region of Kashmir, which is predominantly Muslim, and which India controls in colonial fashion.

The United States, and an increasing number of liberals in Pakistan, have pushed hard for the country to embrace the war on terror, end the double game, give up using Taliban elements as proxies, and engage in a fight that has blown back into Pakistan and killed thousands of Pakistanis. All of which seems eminently sensible and overdue. The problem is that the people who would be carrying out this campaign against some very bad guys are the same ones who have been in bed with those bad guys, and who, moreover, tend to go about their business without much concern for the niceties of law or human rights. As the piece reports:

Beyond the budget files, other classified documents provided to The Post expose fresh allegations of systemic human rights abuses in Pakistan. U.S. spy agencies reported that high-ranking Pakistani military and intelligence officials had been aware of — and possibly ordered — an extensive campaign of extrajudicial killings targeting militants and other adversaries.

Public disclosure of those reports, based on communications intercepts from 2010 to 2012 and other intelligence, could have forced the Obama administration to sever aid to the Pakistani armed forces because of a U.S. law that prohibits military assistance to human rights abusers. But the documents indicate that administration officials decided not to press the issue in order to preserve an already-frayed relationship with the Pakistanis.

Or, in more detail: 

Other classified documents given to The Post by Snowden reveal that U.S. spy agencies for years reported that senior Pakistani military and intelligence leaders were orchestrating a wave of extrajudicial killings of terrorism suspects and other militants. In July 2011, an assessment of communications intercepts and other intelligence by the NSA concluded that the Pakistani military and intelligence services had continued over the preceding 16 months a pattern of lethally targeting perceived enemies without trial or due process. The killings, according to the NSA, occurred “with the knowledge, if not consent, of senior officers.” The NSA cited two senior Pakistani officials who "apparently ordered some of the killings or were at least aware of them,” read a summary of the top-secret NSA report, titled, “Pakistan/Human Rights: Extrajudicial Killings Conducted With Consent of Senior Intelligence Officials."

Any action the Pakistani military is likely to take, then, is going to be shrouded in secrecy, without any checks or balances. (There is an entire province of the country, Balochistan, that is essentially free from any real local or international oversight, and whose goings-on are basically unknown. What is known is that extrajudicial killings related to the province's separatist movement are common, journalists and human rights workers are at great risk, and the military exerts a heavy hand.) In the creepy last section of the piece, the authors report:

Other U.S. intelligence documents indicate that Pakistani officials weren’t targeting just suspected insurgents.In May 2012, U.S. intelligence agencies discovered evidence of Pakistani officers plotting to "eliminate" a prominent human rights activist, Asma Jahangir, according to the summary of a top-secret DIA report. Jahangir had been a leading public critic of the ISI for years.

The DIA report did not identify which officers were plotting to kill Jahangir, but it said the plan "included either tasking militants to kill her in India or tasking militants or criminals to kill her in Pakistan."

Jahangir, one of the most remarkable women in the country, publicly reported threats, but this story serves as confirmation of their seriousness. 

The Americans have been right to urge Pakistan to take terrorism seriously, and the Pakistanis who themselves are tired of blaming sickening violence--which has taken on major sectarian overtones, and includes the mass killing of Shias--on drone attacks or "outsiders," are right to want to face up to what is clearly an existential threat to their country. But what this piece expertly displays is that Pakistan's governing structure and weak institutional checks should make supporters of this course of action take pause, even if they are, in the end, correct.

Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @iChotiner.