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Air strikes by drones effective in Waziristan

Insurgents unnerved, disrupted by attacks

- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 16, 2011

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Extensive CIA-operated Predator drone strikes against remote hide-outs of al Qaeda, the Taliban and other groups in Pakistan are forcing many insurgents out of Waziristan to other areas.

Sources in the North Waziristan tribal region, the area where most of the drone strikes occurred in 2010, said the pervasive attacks have been nonstop and appear to be increasing. These sources suggest that because of a fear of being targeted, fewer insurgents are showing up in the main bazaars of North Waziristan.

"After the great increase in American drone attacks, we could see very few fighters, particularly foreign militants. Previously, they used to roam around in large numbers fearlessly," shopkeeper Aslam Wazir told The Washington Times by telephone from Mir Ali.

Mir Ali is the second-largest town in North Waziristan and is considered a major redoubt of al Qaeda and Pakistani insurgents, the main reason it has seen the largest number of Predator strikes over the past year.

Of the 124 U.S. drone attacks in 2010 in Pakistan's tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan, 83 percent were carried out in North Waziristan.

Most observers and experts agree the attacks in Pakistan have been highly effective.

Some disagree on the fallout from the strikes. Analysts say the drone war is spawning a new breed of fighter made up of relatives of nonmilitant casualties who were killed by air strikes.

"Drone attacks have clearly unnerved both al Qaeda and Pakistani insurgents in the tribal areas," said Ashraf Ali, who heads Islamabad-based FATA Research Center. "What we have observed [is] that these hits have compelled insurgents to limit the use of communication gadgets, like satellite phones, etc."

Mr. Ali said militants who are located in different areas and even those in Waziristan can no longer travel for face-to-face meetings with fellow insurgents.

"So with limited meetings and squeezing personal and impersonal communication, the coordination of insurgents has suffered a lot," he said.

The insurgents' difficulties in coordinating activities also is affecting organizational strength.

"Obviously, due to lack of coordination, insurgents cannot carry on with and expand their main activities, including recruiting, training more militants and executing terrorist attacks through them," Mr. Ali said.

"The few big terrorist attacks we have seen in the northern tribal districts of FATA, including Khyber, Bajaur and Mohmand recently are seemingly incoherent, isolated incidents aimed at [pressuring] the government to ask the U.S. to stop drone attacks."

Pakistani tribal areas, also called the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), include seven districts of North and South Waziristan, so-called southern FATA.

"There is no doubt that drone attacks have been effective in striking insurgents. But they will have their fallout as the near and dear ones of the innocents killed in these hits are most likely to be new militants," said Pakistani journalist and analyst Rahimullah Yousafzai.

Reports in Pakistan last year estimated that drone strikes inside Pakistan killed 703 civilians and 481 militants. However, the numbers are questionable because of the difficulties in distinguishing nonmilitants from fighters, particularly with independent news media having almost no access to the tribal areas.

Knowledgeable sources in Pakistan also said the insurgents think the significant rise in U.S.-led drone attacks is being assisted by the infiltration of spies into insurgent ranks, resulting in an extreme caution in their efforts to recruit new fighters.

"This obviously is going to have strong impact on the capacity of the insurgents," said Imran Khan, a counterinsurgency analyst based in Peshawar, Pakistan. "Because for an insurgency to keep … going, you need an uninterrupted supply of fighters, and to make it potentially a successful one, you need to have ever-expanding network of militants. In this context, al Qaeda and Taliban insurgency in Pakistan received heavy blows due to drone strikes."

The drone attacks also have pushed the insurgents from Waziristan to other parts of FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. Evidence includes the killing of 34 insurgents in three drone attacks in the Khyber agency between Dec. 16 and Dec. 19 outside Waziristan.

To date, most CIA drone strikes were carried out against insurgents in Waziristan and only a handful in other areas. Until recently, drone attacks occurred in Kurram, Orakzai and Khyber tribal districts, with only a single attack carried out in Janikhel area of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

U.S. officials on several occasions suggested there will likely be an expansion of the drone campaign deeper inside Pakistan. The southwestern province of Baluchistan, specifically its capital, Quetta, was pinpointed.

Baluchistan's capital is the home of the Afghan Taliban 'Quetta' Shura, or Executive Council. However, so far no drone strike has been reported in the province.

During multiple drone attacks in the Khyber tribal district, militants from Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Lashkar-e-Islam (LI) were killed together. The groups have not made a formal alliance despite efforts by TTP leaders to bring the latter group under its umbrella to boost its strength.

TTP is the largest Taliban organization of Pakistan, is closely allied with al Qaeda and has an organizational network in the entire country. Its fighters also are fighting alongside the Afghan Taliban insurgents against international coalition troops in Afghanistan.

LI, led by Mangal Bagh Afridi, has a limited network in Khyber, arguably one of the most strategic districts of FATA, located along the ancient trade and warrior route of Khyber Pass. It also is the only region of the Pakistani tribal areas used by NATO to send supplies to Afghanistan.

However, LI has not pursued an anti-U.S. agenda, and its fighters have not crossed over into Afghanistan to fight U.S. and NATO forces, as other Pakistani militant groups have done.

After drone strikes in Khyber, there has been an increase in attacks on NATO supplies convoys and on Pakistani security forces, particularly using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and bomb attacks.

Observers say that LI, after coming under U.S. drone attacks, may decide to launch all-out attacks on NATO supplies as well as on Pakistani troops.

Analysts also said the drone attacks in Pakistan are effective because they have caused relatively less collateral damages owing to precision-strike capability, compared with aerial bombing and guided missiles that would have caused massive collateral damage and casualties.

Pakistani authorities publicly criticize the drone attacks, often calling them "counterproductive." Nevertheless, neither the military nor civilian authorities have taken any action to stop the attacks, despite claims of having the capacity to do so. For this reason, it is generally thought that in Pakistan the drone strikes have the tacit approval of the government in Islamabad.

Pakistan's secret understanding with the United States on drone attacks, if any, is thought to be based on the fact that the strikes have killed a number of top Pakistani militant commanders who were blamed for unleashing a wave of terrorism unprecedented in the country's history.

Despite the effectiveness of the remote attacks, Pakistani Islamist political groups, inside and outside the parliament — including Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) — severely criticized the drone strikes and launched campaigns against them by seeking to stir up anti-American sentiments. These groups charge Islamabad with being "glove in hand with the U.S." to permit such attacks to be carried out from its territory.

However, opposition from these political groups lack substance and appear designed to manipulate anti-U.S. feelings in Pakistan. This has been the groups' central objective and appears aimed at boosting their political survival in a country with huge illiteracy rates and weak democratic institutions, and as a result little understanding of political and strategic issues.

The JUI until recently was part of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani's government. It withdrew after Mr. Gillani dismissed one of the party's ministers for accusing a Cabinet colleague of corruption, specifically for taking illicit payments.

Mr. Gillani is facing mounting pressure to curb the drone strikes from Muslim clerical parties, as well as the general public.

In attempt to reduce the pressure, Mr. Gallani said recently that "drone attacks have brought different militant groups together." He was referring to the killing of TTP and LI members in Khyber during multiple drone attacks.

However, observers say the merging of insurgent groups is not the result of expanding their networks and strategic alliances.

"Rather, militants have come together for their very survival," said Shakoor Khan, a terrorism researcher.

According to Mr. Khan, TTP militants are moving closer to LI "to use the territory controlled by the latter in Khyber as their new sanctuary, after coming under repeated drone attacks in Waziristan, as well as because of fear of being killed by a people-led anti-Taliban movement in the Swat region of Pakistan."

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