Former Ambassador Cameron Munter testified on Capitol Hill before the Senate Foreign Relations committee, Sept. 23, 2010. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP Photo).
Mr. Munter had been urging Washington to selectively launch CIA drone strike against militants on the Pakistani side of the Afghan border. His rare request, was forwarded to the head of the CIA, who dismissed it.
US officials said Leon Panetta’s decision who was then heading the CIA was driven by anger at Pakistan for imprisoning Raymond Davis for so long and a belief that the militants being targeted were too important to pass up.
The deadly March 17 attack helped send the US-Pakistan relationship into a tailspin from which it did not recover for a long time. Such were the things which led the former ambassador to be relinquished of his job.
AMERICA’S FORMER AMBASSADOR TO PAKISTAN TALKS ABOUT HIS BATTLE WITH THE CIA OVER DRONES.
by Tara McKelvey
Cameron Munter, the former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, looked suntanned, but not rested, as he sat in a Foggy Bottom bar a few blocks from the State Department on a fall evening. He placed an Islamabad Golf baseball cap on the table, a souvenir from a decades-long career that had recently ended in a public flameout.
This past May, it was announced that Munter would be leaving his post. At the time, a State Department spokesman said he had made “a personal decision” to step down. But a few weeks after the announcement, The New York Times—in an article about counterterrorism policy—quoted one of Munter’s colleagues saying the ambassador “ didn’t realize his main job was to kill people.”
That didn’t sound like the man I had met several months earlier at a party in Washington—back then, he seemed to relish his job as ambassador. I wondered why Munter’s colleague had said that, and I also wanted to know why he had resigned. He agreed to meet me at a bar to tell his side of the story, explaining that the Times had been wrong about him. It made him sound like a softie, he said, a mischaracterization that he wanted to correct.
Munter—who grew up in Claremont, Calif.—was no stranger to geopolitical hot spots even before he took the Pakistan job. He had been ambassador to Serbia from 2007 to 2009 and later served as deputy chief of mission in Baghdad.
It was Richard Holbrooke, then serving as special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, who initially approached Munter about the ambassadorship to Pakistan. He arrived in Islamabad in October 2010; less than three months later, Holbrooke was admitted to a Washington hospital for heart surgery, and two days after that he was dead. “I miss him every day,” says Munter. “The only reason I took that damn job is because he talked me into it, and then he died.
Holbrooke had handed off an important but tough assignment. For months, the Obama administration’s relations with Pakistan had been in steady decline. Instead of diplomacy, Washington was increasingly employing brass-knuckle techniques, such as threatening to cut back on aid. “When I get calls from the White House, they say, ‘Dial up the pain,’” Munter tells me. “In Islamabad, they don’t respond well to dialing up the pain.”
Soon, Americans and Pakistanis were fighting over the drone program, a contentious issue they had previously worked together on. And this would also become a major source of tension between Munter and Washington officials.
“The use of drones is a good way to fight the war. But you’re going to kill drones if you’re not using them judiciously.”
It wasn’t that Munter was against drone strikes. “We prevented major attacks,” Munter tells me. “To me, that’s my job, and I’m proud we did it.” He also thinks allegations that drone strikes kill civilians are trumped up. “We have people who bring us the bodies of little girls,” he says, stretching out his arms as if he were carrying a small corpse, “and say drones killed them. They’re making it up, or they’re willfully believing lies.”
What Munter did want, however, was a more selective use of drones, coupled with more outreach to the Pakistani government—in short, a bigger emphasis on diplomacy and less reliance on force. “What they’re trying to portray is I’m shocked and horrified, and that’s not my perspective,” he said, referring to The New York Times article. “The use of drones is a good way to fight the war. But you’re going to kill drones if you’re not using them judiciously.” Munter thought the strikes should be carried out in a measured way. “The problem is the political fallout,” he says. “Do you want to win a few battles and lose the war?”
“What is the definition of someone who can be targeted?” I asked. “The definition is a male between the ages of 20 and 40,” Munter replied. “My feeling is one man’s combatant is another man’s—well, a chump who went to a meeting.”
Munter wanted the ability to sign off on drone strikes—and, when necessary, block them.
Then-CIA director Leon Panetta saw things differently. Munter remembers one particular meeting where they clashed. “He said, ‘I don’t work for you,’ and I said, ‘I don’t work for you,’” the former ambassador recalls. (George Little, a former CIA spokesman who is now at the Pentagon—where Panetta is currently serving as Defense secretary—disputed this account. “I’ve heard these rumors before,” he said. “That’s exactly what this is: rumor. [Panetta] has had productive relationships with Ambassador Munter and other ambassadors with whom he has worked.”)
Tara McKelvey, a 2011 Guggenheim fellow, is a correspondent for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. She is also a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review and the author of Monstering: Inside America’s Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War (Basic Books).
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