On September 6, 2009, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser, John Brennan, met with Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to discuss the rising influence of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). “President Saleh pledged unfettered access to Yemen’s national territory for U.S. counterterrorism operations,” according to a secret diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks. While the Obama administration was insisting publicly that its role in Yemen was limited to training the country’s military forces—the same claim it made about Pakistan—US Special Operations forces were conducting offensive operations in Yemen, including airstrikes, and conspiring with Yemen’s president and other leaders to cover up the US role.
On December 17, 2009, an alleged Al Qaeda training camp in Yemen at al-Majalah, Abyan, was hit by a cruise missile, killing forty-one people. According to an investigation by the Yemeni Parliament, fourteen women and twenty-one children were among the dead, along with fourteen alleged Al Qaeda fighters. A week later another airstrike hit another village in Yemen.
Amnesty International released photographs from one of the strikes, revealing remnants of US cluster munitions and the Tomahawk cruise missiles used to deliver them. At the time, the Pentagon refused to comment, directing all inquiries to Yemen’s government, which released a statement on December 24 taking credit for both airstrikes, saying in a press release, “Yemeni fighter jets launched an aerial assault” and “carried out simultaneous raids killing and detaining militants.”
US diplomatic cables now reveal that both strikes were conducted by the US military under orders from Gen. David Petraeus, then head of US Central Command (Centcom). “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” President Saleh told Petraeus during a meeting in early January 2010, according to one cable. Yemen’s Deputy Prime Minister Rashad al-Alimi then boasted that he had just “lied” by telling Parliament “that the bombs…were American-made but deployed by” Yemen. According to US Special Operations sources, US teams also conduct targeted killing operations and raids inside Yemen.
The WikiLeaks information partially corroborates what sources told The Nation in June about how the Obama administration was expanding the footprint of covert actions conducted by the military, not the CIA, to more than seventy-five countries. The frontline battles, the sources alleged, were in Yemen and Somalia. “In both those places, there are ongoing unilateral actions,” said a special operations source, adding that they do “a lot in Pakistan too.”
The WikiLeaks cables also reveal that despite denials by US officials spanning more than a year, US Special Operations forces have been conducting offensive operations in Pakistan, helping direct US drone strikes and conducting joint operations with Pakistani troops against Al Qaeda and Taliban forces in North and South Waziristan and elsewhere in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. According to an October 9, 2009, cable classified by Anne Patterson, then the US ambassador to Pakistan, the operations were conducted by US Special Operations forces and coordinated with the US Office of the Defense Representative in Pakistan. A Special Operations source told The Nation that the US forces described in the cable as “SOC(FWD)-PAK” were “forward operating troops” from the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the most elite force in the US military, made up of Navy SEALs, Delta Force and Army Rangers.
The cables also confirm aspects of a Nation story from November 2009, “The Secret US War in Pakistan,” which detailed offensive combat operations by JSOC in Pakistan. At the time, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell called the Nation story “conspiratorial” and denied that US Special Operations forces were doing anything other than “training” in Pakistan. More than a month after the October 2009 cable from the US Embassy in Pakistan confirming JSOC combat missions, Morrell told reporters that the United States had “a few dozen forces on the ground in Pakistan…training Pakistani forces so that they can in turn train other Pakistani military,” adding, “That’s the extent of our military boots on the ground in Pakistan.” It now appears that Morrell’s statement was false.
To the embassy staff, Pakistan’s allowing US forces to engage in combat was viewed as a “sea change” in its military leaders’ thinking. The staff said they had previously been “adamantly opposed [to] letting us embed” US Special Operations forces with Pakistani forces. On the issue of airstrikes, the US government appears to have an arrangement with Pakistani authorities that mirrors the one with Yemen’s government. While the US government will not confirm drone strikes inside the country and Pakistani officials regularly criticize the strikes, the issue of the drones was discussed in another cable, from August 2008. That cable described a meeting between Ambassador Patterson and Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani. Gillani 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.”
In fall 2008, the US Special Operations Command asked top US diplomats in Pakistan and Afghanistan for detailed information on refugee camps along the Af-Pak border and a list of humanitarian aid organizations working in those camps. On October 6, Patterson sent a cable marked “Confidential” to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the CIA, Centcom and several US embassies, saying that some of the requests, which came as e-mails, “suggested that agencies intend to use the data for targeting purposes.” Other requests, according to the cable, “indicate it would be used for ‘NO STRIKE’ purposes.” The cable, issued jointly by the US embassies in Kabul and Islamabad, declared: “We are concerned about providing information gained from humanitarian organizations to military personnel, especially for reasons that remain unclear. Particularly worrisome, this does not seem to us a very efficient way to gather accurate information.”
It is also clear from the cables that the ability of US Special Operations forces to operate in Pakistan is viewed as a major development. The US Embassy there notes the potential consequences of the activities leaking: “These deployments are highly politically sensitive because of widely-held concerns among the public about Pakistani sovereignty and opposition to allowing foreign military forces to operate in any fashion on Pakistani soil. Should these developments and/or related matters receive any coverage in the Pakistani or US media, the Pakistani military will likely stop making requests for such assistance.”
Such statements might help explain why Ambassador Richard Holbrooke lied when he said bluntly in July: “People think that the US has troops in Pakistan. Well, we don’t.”
What the WikiLeaks documents make clear is that the handful of cables on US Special Operations activities in Pakistan and Yemen offer a tiny glimpse into one of the darkest corners of current US counterterrorism policy.