Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif came to Washington this week with a mission — but also with some very bad timing.  Under fire at home over the US drone war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the border country with Afghanistan, Sharif told Obama that the US had to stop its remote-control war:

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said he’d told President Barack Obama on Wednesday that U.S. drone strikes in his country needed to end.

The remarks came as the two leaders met in person for more than two hours in high-level talks aimed at beginning to mend a historically troubled relationship.

Sharif, who described the Oval Office talks as “cordial and comprehensive,” said Pakistan and the U.S. had agreed to cooperate further on counterterrorism measures, but he nevertheless said he’d raised the issue of drone strikes with Obama, “emphasizing the need for an end to such strikes.”

His visit came a day after the White House defended the drone program as it disputed claims by two human rights groups that its targeted-killing program violates international law and often has killed civilians, including a grandmother in Pakistan.

The White House was prepared for Sharif’s publicity stunt.  Just hours after the meeting, the Washington Post somehow got sensitive documents showing that Pakistan has secretly approved the drone strikes, and even demand regular briefings on how effective they are:

Despite repeatedly denouncing the CIA’s drone campaign, top officials in Pakistan’s government have for years secretly endorsed the program and routinely received classified briefings on strikes and casualty counts, according to top-secret CIA documents and Pakistani diplomatic memos obtained by The Washington Post.

The files describe dozens of drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal region and include maps as well as before-and-after aerial photos of targeted compounds over a four-year stretch from late 2007 to late 2011 in which the campaign intensified dramatically.

Markings on the documents indicate that many of them were prepared by the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center specifically to be shared with Pakistan’s government. They tout the success of strikes that killed dozens of alleged al-Qaeda operatives and assert repeatedly that no civilians were harmed.

Pakistan’s tacit approval of the drone program has been one of the more poorly kept national security secrets in Washington and Islamabad. During the early years of the campaign, the CIA even used Pakistani airstrips for its Predator fleet.

But the files expose the explicit nature of a secret arrangement struck between the two countries at a time when neither was willing to publicly acknowledge the existence of the drone program. The documents detailed at least 65 strikes in Pakistan and were described as “talking points” for CIA briefings, which occurred with such regularity that they became a matter of diplomatic routine. The documents are marked “top ­secret” but cleared for release to Pakistan.

Wow — what coincidentally awesome timing the Post has in reporting this story! I’m sure that Attorney General Eric Holder will be tapping the phones of Greg Miller and Bob Woodward any day now, complete with a claim that they’re both espionage suspects, to track down the source of this leak.  We can’t wait for Jay Carney to tell the White House press corps that “nobody’s madder than the President” that this leaked out just as Sharif concluded his grandstanding in DC.

Meanwhile, human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch continue to hammer the Obama administration for the drone war, especially over the civilian death toll it produces.  Bloomberg’s Noah Feldman, an outspoken critic of the Bush-era detention policies in the war on terror, wonders whether liberals like himself are to blame for Barack Obama’s drone war:

But the reports presage what will probably become history’s verdict on drone strikes taking place off the battlefield in weak states: bad for human rights, bad for the rule of law — and bad for U.S. interests in the fight against terrorism.

There will be plenty of blame to go around, yet I can’t escape the gnawing feeling that people like me — legal critics of the George W. Bush administration’s detention policy — bear some moral responsibility for creating incentives for the Obama administration to kill rather than capture. True, we didn’t realize that condemning interrogation practices and quasi-lawless detention at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, would lead a Democratic president to break new ground in unfettered presidential authority. But that’s just the point: We should have seen it coming. And we didn’t. …

When people including myself made these criticisms to reasonable people in the Bush administration — yes, there were reasonable people there, such as Matthew Waxman, who worked in both the State and Defense departments, and Jack Goldsmith, of the Office of Legal Counsel (and now my colleague at Harvard Law School) — we got a pretty consistent answer. Look, they said, detention is problematic, but it is better than just killing people!

These Bush administration moderates pointed out that in choosing military targets, mistakes were sometimes made — collateral damage was even accepted under international law. Detention, too, might involve errors, but it was necessary as an alternative to shooting first and asking questions later.

I found these arguments unconvincing at the time. The rule of law, I believed, was being fundamentally distorted by intentional acts of detention and interrogation that were not authorized and that deviated from legal norms. The detainees were being subjected to human rights violations, which was bad enough; but executive power was also being drastically expanded in the attempt to provide some doubtful justification for what was going on.

I stand by those criticisms. But in retrospect, perhaps I and others should have been more attuned to the likely consequences of making them. Democrats focused on Guantanamo and the anonymous black detention sites as symbols of all that was wrong with the Bush administration’s detention policy. That in turn obligated Obama to do the same, leaving him with almost no room to maneuver on detention.

I didn’t have the same reservations that Feldman did about Guantanamo, which detains unlawful combatants captured by military and intelligence services in a Congressionally-authorized war.  The debate over the broad nature of the 2001 AUMF aside, those detentions are legitimate exercises of military/intelligence wartime authority, which reside in the executive.  Congress has crafted several different military-commissions systems to process those cases, all of which were superior in terms of defendant rights to the oft-cited Nuremberg tribunals (which had no right of appeals at all); the only forces stopping adjudication through those systems have been federal judges intruding on executive authority, and Barack Obama himself.

All along, supporters of those policies have argued all along that this was the likely outcome.  If the US could not capture terrorists, we’d just kill them instead.  And since there was no particular value in risking US servicemen for those missions — with the exceptions of really high-value targets like Osama bin Laden — drone strikes and their inevitable collateral casualties were the rational choice.  Not only does that undermine our allies, it also means we lose incalculable intelligence opportunities through interrogation.  And even when we do capture a terrorist, we rush to bring him to federal court if he stages a hunger strike, from the US Navy ship that was serving as an ad hoc Gitmo.

If we want an end to drone strikes, we’re going to have to get over our delicacy of detention in wartime, or surrender and retreat.