Pakistani officials threatened Monday to impose new limits on CIA drone strikes in their country and to expel agency operatives whose missions are not approved by Islamabad, escalating a high-stakes feud between the counterterrorism allies, U.S. and Pakistani officials said.
The demands, which were conveyed as top spies from the two countries met at CIA headquarters in Virginia, represent an effort by Pakistan to exert more control over the covert CIA war being waged inside its borders.
Pakistani officials have expressed mounting frustration with the accelerated pace of the CIA’s Predator air campaign and the expanded presence of agency operatives, including a security contractor who fatally shot two Pakistani men in Lahore in January.
Still, any new restrictions on the CIA’s activities in Pakistan could have far-reaching consequences for the U.S. pursuit of al-Qaeda and its top leaders, who are thought to be based in the country’s tribal belt.
The frictions were the focus of a meeting Monday between CIA Director Leon Panetta and the head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha.
A senior Pakistani official called the tone of the meeting “cordial” but said Pasha made clear that the CIA-ISI relationship had suffered a “breach of trust” and had to be reconfigured with a “clear code of conduct.”
“We need to know who is in Pakistan doing what, and that the CIA won’t go behind our back,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “There has to be a greater sharing of information, in terms of what the CIA wants and is doing. They have to stop mistrusting the ISI as much as they do . . . you can’t have us as your ally and treat us as your adversary at the same time.”
Pasha asked the CIA for a complete list of its employees and contractors in Pakistan and made clear that some may be asked to leave, the official said. The Pakistanis also said that they wanted a reduction in the number of Predator strikes and more timely information about intended targets before attacks are launched.
CIA officials sought to play down the disagreement and signaled that joint counterterrorism operations would continue.
“Director Panetta and General Pasha held productive discussions today, and the CIA-ISI relationship remains on solid footing,” agency spokesman George Little said. “Today’s exchange emphasized the need to continue to work closely together, including on our common fight against terrorist networks that threaten both countries.”
Even so, U.S. officials acknowledged that Pasha pushed to restructure the relationship and to impose new requirements on the CIA.
“The Pakistanis have asked for more visibility into some things, and that request is being talked about,” a U.S. official said. There have also been discussions on “ways to further expand the partnership,” the official said. “The bottom line is that joint cooperation is essential to the security of the two nations. The stakes are too high.”
For that reason, disagreements between the CIA and the ISI have generally led to more public recriminations than actual disruptions in their joint counterterrorism work. But Pakistani officials signaled Monday that the dynamic could change because of a perception in Islamabad that the CIA has overstepped.
Perhaps most worrisome for U.S. officials is the threat to place new limits on the drone campaign, which Panetta once referred to as “the only game in town” in terms of lethal operations against al-Qaeda. The Pakistani threat was first reported Monday by Reuters.
The CIA carried out 118 drone strikes in Pakistan last year, more than in all the previous years of the program combined, according to independent estimates. The campaign has been more sporadic this year, possibly because of CIA-ISI frictions, with the most recent strike conducted March 17.
Pakistani officials said they plan to press the CIA to restore the rules that were in place at the beginning of the program, when strikes were intermittent and the agency typically gave notice to — or sought permission from — the Pakistani government before a missile was launched.
The process was revised toward the end of the George W. Bush administration. Amid worries that Pakistan was not pursuing al-Qaeda aggressively enough, the CIA ceased providing notifications and dramatically accelerated the pace of airstrikes.
More recently, Pakistani officials have expressed alarm over the scope of the CIA’s presence inside their country, as well as an alleged expansion of agency operations aimed at gathering intelligence on Pakistan’s nuclear program and militant groups with links to the ISI.
The arrest of CIA contractor Raymond Davis heightened suspicions that the agency was conducting unilateral operations deep inside Pakistan. The possibility that the country might seek to expel some CIA officers was first reported by the New York Times.
The CIA’s station in Islamabad is one of the agency’s largest in the world and is thought to employee hundreds of operatives, analysts and contractors. The actual number of CIA employees there is classified.
Largely because of the Davis case, a U.S. official said, “they want us to have less of a footprint, less ability to maneuver and not to have operational capabilities in their cities and watch over what they’re doing.”
Pakistan was also angered by the tone of a progress report issued by the White House last week. The report praised the Pakistani military for confronting militants but concluded that there was “no clear path toward defeating the insurgency in Pakistan.”