As promised, here is another excerpt from Rachel Maddow’s soon-to-be-released “Drift.” This one is exclusive to the MaddowBlog. You won’t find it anywhere else. For this one, we take you to Chapter 8:
An excerpt from Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, by Rachel Maddow. On sale March 27th, 2012.
The houbara bustard is not a particularly large or regal bird. It looks a little like what you might get if you bred a common pheasant with an ostrich—like a miniature ostrich with a shorter neck and legs, or maybe a pheasant on steroids, with a stretched neck, sprinter’s legs, and a much more impressive wingspan. But the little fella has recently provided crucial assistance in making America’s war in Afghanistan (and its spillover in Pakistan) the longest-running military hot show in our nation’s history.
In May 2011, Pakistan got its nose out of joint when US Special Forces sprung a surprise mission on a compound in Abbottabad and offed the most infamous terrorist on the planet, without giving a heads-up to the host government. The Pakistani military and intelligence service found itself having to explain how the target, Osama bin Laden, could have been living in tranquility just a few miles down the road from Pakistan’s most important military academy, in a neighborhood crawling with current and retired military ofﬁcers. Was Pakistani intelligence that incompetent, or were they protecting bin Laden? And then they had to explain how a US strike force and its very big helicopters could ﬂy into Abbottabad, spend nearly an hour on the ground, and then leave the country with bin Laden’s carcass in tow without being detected, let alone stopped.
While President Obama and the rest of America took a celebratory victory lap, the Pakistanis found the entire episode hugely shaming— but not so much on the bin-Laden-in-our-backyard count. They really ﬁxated on the lack of respect accorded their nation by the United States. “American troops coming across the border and taking action in one of our towns … is not acceptable to the people of Pakistan,” former president Pervez Musharraf said the day after the raid. “It is a violation of our sovereignty.” Worse, word quickly leaked out that President Obama had not only ordered that the Pakistani military and its intelligence service be kept in the dark while the mission was being planned and executed, he had his team ready to do battle with any Pakistani military forces that tried to stop the operation once in progress.
The Pakistani parliament called the country’s military and intelligence chieftains into a rare (and marathon) closed-door session, where the generals had a spot of trouble in covering their respective lapses, but they did deftly deﬂect much of the civilian ire: the United States, they reminded everyone, was the bad guy here. The generals had little trouble encouraging parliament to formally demand that, henceforth, the United States would ensure that “Pakistan’s national interests were fully respected.” Ally schmally—the Pakistani people deserved some respect. To add some bite to this declaration of sovereignty, the generals suggested a good ﬁrst step would be forcing the United States to shut down the secret program the CIA had been running out of an airbase in a remote corner of Pakistan called Balochistan. Unfortunately, in publicizing their demand that the CIA leave that airbase, the generals also revealed to surprised Pakistani legislators … that the CIA had been using that airbase. This was cause for an uproar in parliament, but the fact that the CIA had been ﬂying armed drones out of the airﬁeld known as Shamsi came as much less of a surprise to the citizens of the areas those drones were targeting—the tribal regions.
The CIA’s rather dumpy-looking high- tech unmanned aircraft had been used mainly for surveillance in the early stages of the war in Afghanistan. But they could also be armed with Hellﬁre missiles. Very occasionally from 2004 to 2007, and more frequently in 2008, the Bush administration used drones to launch airborne attacks on suspected terrorists in Pakistan. When the Obama administration took over in 2009, the number of drone attacks spiked; the next year the 2009 numbers more than doubled. The Obama administration refused as a matter of policy to officially acknowledge the CIA’s drone attacks, but in the days following a big get, they announced that some key Al-Qaeda or Haqqani Network leader “was killed,” as if the event were an act of providence or, like a rainbow, a remarkable atmospheric happening.
Meanwhile, in North and South Waziristan, the presence of the drones has become a hated fact of life—the locals reportedly call them “wasps.” So this was a very popular move in Pakistan, telling the CIA to get the hell out of Shamsi, that there would be no more lethal American drones launched from Pakistani soil … or else. Or else what? Well, Pakistan’s air marshal reminded the Obama administration, the F-16 jets the United States had sold the Pakistani Air Force could knock the drones out of the sky. Team Obama did not ﬂinch. These drone attacks had become the centerpiece of Obama’s recalibration of America’s Global War on Terror, even if we didn’t call it that anymore. The strikes had proved Democrats could be as serious about killing bad guys as Republicans were. In fact, the successes had been among the few bright spots on a fairly bleak political landscape for a young, inexperienced, ﬁrst-term president. The Obama administration had no intention of pulling up stakes in Shamsi. “That base is neither vacated nor being vacated” was the anonymous but official word from Washington. It was a Mexican standoff in Balochistan.
Here’s where the Houbara bustard provided a little wiggle room in what otherwise looked like a very knotty situation. This tiny forgotten strip of land that held the airbase in Shamsi, it turned out, did not actually belong to Pakistan; it had been quietly signed over to the United Arab Emirates twenty years earlier, in a show of friendship. You see, Balochistan, aside from being full of spectacular Garden of Eden natural wonders, is among the few wintering grounds of the Houbara bustard, a bird held in high esteem among hunters from the UAE and Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Falconry is the sport of Arab kings, and the poor bustard had long been the preferred prey for falconers. So Emirati royalty were really pleased to have this special foothold in Balochistan, and right away built themselves a sizeable landing strip for easy access to this surprisingly sought- after corner of the world.
“The sheiks tell me it is the ultimate challenge for the falcon,” a chieftain in Balochistan told New Yorker writer Mary Anne Weaver back around the time the Emiratis built the Shamsi airstrip. “The falcon is the fastest bird on earth, and the houbara is also fast, both on the ground and in the air. It is also a clever, wary bird, with a number of tricks.” Among these tricks, the chieftain continued, is an ability to ink-jet “a dark-green slime violently from its vent. Its force is so strong that it can spread for three feet, and it can temporarily blind the falcon, or glue its feathers together, making it unable to ﬂy.” The belief also persisted that the meat of the bustard was an aphrodisiac. Not hard to see why the bustard had been sought and consumed with such sustained effort that the bird was nearly extinct on the Arabian Peninsula.
Cold War politics had added degrees of difficulty for the sportsmen as well. The fall of the shah in 1979 made bustard hunting problematic for Sunni Arabs in Shiite Iran, as had the near-constant state of war in Afghanistan. So Balochistan emerged as the destination spot for latter-day Arab Nimrods. For the last twenty years or so, Emirati sheiks and Saudi princes and the more general run of ambitious Arab dignitaries had jockeyed for the best allotments in the last good place on earth to hunt the bustard. (When Pakistan’s foreign office bestowed upon the Emirati poobahs an allotment once held by the Saudis, the Saudis withheld oil supplies from Pakistan and money for flood relief.) Arab royalty of various stripes show up every year with, according to Weaver’s description, pop-up tent cities, hundreds of servants, satellite dishes for better communication, and hunting vehicles tricked out with sophisticated laptops, infrared spotlights, and bustard-seeking radar. Maybe not sporting, but certainly effective.
Officials at Pakistan’s Ministry of Environment warned over and over about their ever-dwindling bustard population, but they were powerless to keep the Arab potentates to their bag limit of one hundred birds a year. “They never respect code of conduct,” said one ministry man. “What can the Wildlife Department do if the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, the president of the UAE or emir of Qatar go into a region that is prohibited for hunting and cross their bag limit?” Not much, apparently, if Pakistan still wanted cheap oil and dirhams and riyals for flood relief, or jet fighters and tanks.
The Emiratis had made one concession that slightly crimped their style in the bustard-hunting department. In the weeks after the 9/11 attacks in 2001—when everybody wanted to pitch in—they had agreed, with the consent of Pakistani president Musharraf, to let the Americans use Shamsi as a base to supply US troops ﬁghting the Taliban just across the border in Afghanistan … and maybe for a few special and classiﬁed operations. In the ten years that followed, as the CIA (and its many private contractors) began operating lethal attack drones out of Shamsi, the remote top secret base remained off-limits to Pakistan’s own Air Force. So when the @!$%# hit the fan (when the slime hit the falcon) in the aftermath of the bin Laden raid, thanks to the Houbara bustard, everybody had an out: the United States could make it plain that the CIA was not vacating Shamsi, and Pakistan could still save face. Pakistani government officials could say—and did!—Hey, we just checked our land records and it turns out this little strip of Balochistan is not, legally speaking, Pakistan-controlled territory after all. We gave it to the Emiratis for bustard hunting! So, sorry, but there’s nothing we can do to stop the part of America’s secret drone war operating out of Shamsi. But we do condemn it in the strongest possible language.
The UAE meanwhile went on record saying they’d only built the airstrip. Emirati sheiks and others used it for “recreational purposes.” What “recreation” the CIA was pursuing there, the Emiratis couldn’t say. Shamsi, they assured the world, “was never operated or controlled by the UAE.”
And so we still had our drone base in Shamsi, and no skittish ally had to take the blame for having handed it over to us. Even after the bin Laden raid and the Pakistani freak-out, America stepped up the already furious pace of the drone attacks, executing twenty-one multiple- kill sorties in the next two months (as many as three in one day), though nobody in the US government would say where the unmanned flights originated. “A U.S. military official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said there are presently no U.S. military personnel at Shamsi,” the Associated Press reported. “But he could not speak for the CIA or contractors used by any other U.S. agencies. The CIA rarely discusses the covert drone program.”
When reports surfaced that all US operatives ﬁnally packed up and left Shamsi about six months later, at the end of 2011, the official word from our government was still … no comment. “If the agency did have such a [covert drone] program,” the Obama administration’s counterterrorism czar told a forum at the president’s alma mater, Harvard Law School, in the fall of 2011, “I’m sure it would be done with the utmost care, precision, in accordance with the law and our values.” Wink-wink. The audience chortled knowingly.
“While we don’t discuss the details of our counterterrorism operations,” a CIA spokeswoman told the Washington Post, “the fact that they are a top priority and effective is precisely what the American people expect.”
Copyright © 2012 Rachel Maddow From the book Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. Reprinted with permission.