- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 24, 2009

U.S. missiles fired from drones killed at least five suspected al Qaeda fighters in Pakistan just east of the Afghan border Friday, signaling that one key element of the Bush administration’s war on terror remains unchanged.

A senior Pakistani official told The Washington Times that about 20 people died in the strikes, including at least five militants.

“We are still not able to confirm the exact number of deaths or the names of those who were killed,” the official said. He spoke on the condition he not be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Bruce Riedel, a specialist on al Qaeda at the Brookings Institution, said the strikes — the first since President Obama took office — showed that the new U.S. administration would continue the Bush policy of aggressively attacking militant targets in Pakistan from the air.

“Obama was very clear in the campaign that going after al Qaeda was a top priority,” Mr. Riedel said.

He noted that earlier this week, the Pakistanis arrested a Saudi al Qaeda operative named Taifi suspected in organizing attacks on NATO convoys bound from Pakistan to Afghanistan and possibly the 2005 bombings on London buses and subways that killed more than 50 people.

“The drone operations and the arrest show the battle to defeat AQ [al Qaeda] continues,” Mr. Riedel said. “What Obama is changing is the counterproductive parts of Bush’s war on terrorism, like torture and Guantanamo, that hurt the fight against AQ.”

The Associated Press reported that the first attack Friday was carried out in the village of Zharki in North Waziristan. Three missiles fired from a drone destroyed two buildings and killed 10 people, including the five suspected militants.

The second strike occurred in Wana and killed at least eight people, AP said. Local residents said electricity was cut off in western Wana after the attack and that Taliban militants immediately surrounded the area.

Wana, about 17 miles from the Afghan border, is the main town in South Waziristan, a tribal area that has been the site of several attacks from pilotless U.S. craft in recent months and is believed to be a hotbed of militant activity.

The Times reported last week that U.S. air strikes over the past six months have killed eight al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan’s tribal region. Pakistani military sources have told The Times that the U.S. strikes have become increasingly accurate, avoiding civilian casualties that have hurt U.S.-Pakistani relations.

Among those killed, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials, were Rashid Rauf, accused of planning to send terrorist operatives with homemade liquid bombs onto several airliners flying from Britain to the United States and Canada in 2006, and Usama al-Kini, who was accused of planning the Sept. 20 bombing of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan, that killed 53 people, including two members of the U.S. military.

The latest attacks came a day after Mr. Obama appointed veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke as special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, signaling recognition that stabilizing Afghanistan requires a comprehensive strategy.

Outgoing CIA Director Michael V. Hayden told reporters Jan. 17 that what the U.S. and “our Pakistani allies have been able to do has changed the equation” for al Qaeda, making it more difficult for the organization to operate in the border region freely.

Asked whether the U.S. was any closer to capturing al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden or his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mr. Hayden said, “it’s always been my belief that you’ll get [number] two before you get one. He’s a more visible figure. He’s more operationally involved. It’s hard to say much more.”

An Afghan source, familiar with U.S. operations in the region, who spoke to The Times on the condition of anonymity, said that fighting has intensified but that the Taliban has been gaining strength along the eastern and southern border of Aghanistan.

“The [Afghan] government is losing support of the people because the people are not trusting the government anymore,” he said.

The individual, who resides in the eastern region of Afghanistan near the Pakistan border and spoke to The Times by phone, said that militants are still continuing to use Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas for training and refuge. The militants are “killing and threatening” local tribes who support President Hamid Karzai’s government, he said.

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