- The Washington Times - Monday, August 10, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The death of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud is a major victory in the ongoing struggle against terrorism. Mehsud’s demise Wednesday by Hellfire missile is also a vindication of a controversial U.S. military program that has produced dramatic results.

President George W. Bush authorized the expanded use of unmanned attack drones in August 2008. At the time, Pakistan had a Top 20 list of targets. The program was so successful that nine months later, more than half the targets had been hit, and Pakistan issued a new Top 20 list. President Obama has continued this program despite complaints in Pakistan that the drone attacks are a violation of its sovereignty.

The gripes most likely are for political cover because Islamabad is complicit in the program. It has been reported that Predators have operated out of bases in Pakistan, and it is probable that targeting intelligence is based in part on information sources in the frontier areas where the Taliban is active. The strikes have been very precise and well-timed, which implies that there are spooks on the ground working with the drones in the air. The fact that Mehsud was believed to have ordered the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was the wife of current President Asif Ali Zardari, may explain the absence of any official protest.

The program has been criticized for killing noncombatants, but these charges have come largely from Taliban sources. The insurgents habitually surround attack sites, then invent stories of missed targets and mass civilian casualties. But high-ranking government sources in Pakistan tell us that those claims are false. The strikes in the past year have been very accurate, and civilians who are killed tend to be family members and others who are close to the terrorists being targeted. It is regrettable that one of Mehsud’s wives died in the attack but even more so that he would knowingly place her in such danger.

The drone strikes have been welcomed by the people in the region, who are tired of suffering from Taliban intimidation. In March, we reported on an opinion poll conducted by Pakistan’s Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy. A survey of 550 people in drone-targeted areas of the North West Frontier Province and Federally Administered Tribal Areas found that 58 percent of respondents said the attacks have not increased anti-American feelings. Fifty-five percent said they did not “create fear and terror in the common people,” 60 percent said the strikes were effective in damaging terror organizations, and 70 percent said they would like to see the Pakistani army make its own strikes on the militants.

Targeting leaders is not a comprehensive solution to the terror problem but is a proven method of blunting the effectiveness of extremist groups. Al Qaeda in Iraq was severely, perhaps fatally, damaged by the death of its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in 2006. Similar strategies in Israel and Saudi Arabia have driven surviving leadership elements underground, making it more difficult for terrorists to plan operations and coordinate their dispersed networks. Mehsud’s Tehrik-i-Taliban movement undoubtedly will continue under a new leader, though whether he will be as capable is open to question.

Continued drone strikes may convince others that engaging in political violence is not cost-free because the attacks impose sudden, direct and definitive consequences. For those who want to inflict terror on others, there is a certain justice to the fact that they are forced to live in constant fear of imminent Hellfire.

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