Pakistan’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Deal on US Air Strikes

Pakistan’s loud complaints about the regular US air strikes in its tribal areas have had so little effect on American policy that it has been speculated that there must be a “secret understanding” between the two. Pakistan’s government denied this earlier in the month, but new reports are indicating that this is more or less exactly what’s been happening.

After US helicopters attacked a South Waziristan village in early September, the two nations reached a “tacit agreement” on what the Washington Post terms a “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” policy on US drone strikes. Under the deal, the US will not publicly acknowledge any of their attacks and the Pakistani government will continue to publicly complain about them.

Sort of a win-win for the two sides. The United States gets to continue launching unilateral attacks with no real consequences, and the Pakistani government gets the plausible deniability that comes from loudly complaining every time such an attack is launched. Whether this status quo can be maintained after public revelation of the deal is another matter, of course.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari says he receives no “prior notice” of the attacks, and gives the Americans the “benefit of the doubt” that their missiles meant to land on Afghan soil, no matter how many overflights they do over Pakistani cities or how regularly the strikes land in Pakistani villages.

The attacks have provoked popular outrage in Pakistan’s tribal areas, and the support of tribal area legislators is vital to the maintenance of the Zardari government’s narrow coalition. The revelation of this understanding may have serious political consequences for the Pakistani national government.

Author: Jason Ditz

Jason Ditz is Senior Editor for He has 20 years of experience in foreign policy research and his work has appeared in The American Conservative, Responsible Statecraft, Forbes, Toronto Star, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Providence Journal, Washington Times, and the Detroit Free Press.