According to reports published on the Internet, many Pakistanis believe the CIA is always hovering, watching, and plotting, and that all Americans in the country—investors, diplomats, journalists, development workers (including an NGO worker kidnapped in 2011)—are either spies or connected to them.
It couldn’t be that true, of course. However, between 2008 and 2011, US intelligence operatives had a sizable number of personnel on the ground in Pakistan. Exact figures are hard to obtain, but Anatol Lieven roughly estimated that by 2010, “hundreds of new CIA operatives” had entered the country without much checks and balances.
Two major factors account for the CIA’s decision to ramp up its presence. One was the increasing strength of militancy in Pakistan’s tribal areas, which in 2008 prompted Langley to expand a drone war that had begun in 2004. The CIA used Shamsi airbase—a Pakistani military facility in Baluchistan province—to launch drones, with assistance from employees of Xe (formerly Blackwater), who loaded missiles onto them.
In fact, much earlier, after US troops deployed to Afghanistan in 2001, and until 2011, CIA operatives were stationed at Shamsi (they also had a presence at Shahbaz airbase in Sindh province). According to the International Crisis Group, the CIA used both bases for intelligence gathering.
Lashkar-e-Taiba’s 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai also drove the CIA to expand its presence in Pakistan. As the New York Times’ Mark Mazzetti writes in his book, The Way of the Knife, that tragedy prompted the CIA to increase its intelligence collection about the group—a decision that pushed American spies out of the Pakistani tribal areas and into major cities.
The Pakistani security establishment, it should be noted, accommodated this shift. A 2013 report by the Open Society Justice Initiative reveals that Pakistan’s main intelligence agency, the ISI, permitted the CIA to use its facilities in Karachi for detention and interrogation purposes.
In 2011, two notorious incidents confirmed Pakistani suspicions about what they regarded as CIA nefariousness in their country. In 2011, Raymond Davis—a CIA contractor holed up in a Lahore safe house—shot dead two Pakistanis in a busy intersection. That same year, the CIA successfully recruited a Pakistani doctor, Shakil Afridi, to launch a fake vaccination drive to help track down Osama Bin Laden.
By late 2011, US-Pakistan relations were in deep crisis, and many American spies—including those stationed at Shamsi—left the country. Today, the CIA presence is more modest. The number of US Special Forces has also shrunk (if not altogether disappeared).
During the 2008-2011 period, in addition to launching the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound, Special Forces personnel provided training to Pakistani security forces and helped implement development projects. In 2010, three US Special Forces officers were killed while on a training mission in northwest Pakistan as they travelled to a reopening ceremony for a girl’s school reconstructed with US funds.
Still, if financial commitment is any indication, the CIA remains deeply engaged in Pakistan. According to Washington Post, journalists who have seen US intelligence agency budget requests, proposals for Fiscal Year 2013 contain “detailed spreadsheets” with “dozens of line items that correspond to operations in Pakistan.”
And the drone war in Pakistan has been described as one of the most expensive “covert action” programs in the world. True, the number of strikes has diminished annually since 2010; there hasn’t been a single strike since late December.
Nonetheless, US officials have indicated a keen desire to maintain the drone program in Pakistan for a number of years (albeit in reduced form) after the departure of US combat troops from Afghanistan.