The Attack of the Predator Drones
by Charles Lemos, Sat Feb 21, 2009 at 10:01:05 PM EST
It appears that the Obama administration has decided to expand the covert war run by the Central Intelligence Agency inside Pakistan by increasing the use of predator drones. This week there were two more missile attacks inside Pakistan but unlike previous attacks on Al-Qaeda or Afghan Taliban targets, these attacks were on training camps run by a Pakistani Islamist group known as the Mehsud Network under the command of Baitullah Mehsud, a Pashtun tribesman from Waziristan, though the eponymous group reportedly does have links to Al-Qaeda.
From the New York Times profile of Baitullah Mehsud:
Mr. Mehsud, with foreign backing, has claimed to have hundreds of suicide bombers at the ready, and officials of both Pakistan and Afghanistan say he is responsible for many attacks on government and military targets. The Pakistani government blames him for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007. Mr. Mehsud has called for global jihad: In Spain, attacks on public transportation have been carried out in his name, government officials there say.
Though he is said to be uneducated and have no religious training, Baitullah Mehsud was thought to have modeled himself after Mullah Muhammad Omar, the elusive one-eyed leader of the Afghan Taliban. But Mr. Mehsud has become far less reclusive than he was in the past and has begun to flaunt his power. He now openly operates terror training camps near the Afghan border. He is ruthless in assassinating rivals: at least 100 Waziri tribal leaders have been purged on his orders, intelligence sources say. In late 2007, a Taliban shura, a 40-member consultative council, chose him to unify its operations in Pakistan.
Various reports in late January 2008 said that Mullah Omar and the Afghan Taliban had broken with Mr. Mehsud because he was focusing on attacks in Pakistan, rather than in Afghanistan. Yet the Pakistani government has not acted forcefully against him. "If the army took firm action they could crush him in two months," said one frustrated tribal leader. Experts say that the Pakistani government thinks Mr. Mehsud's border presence might be useful if Pakistan ever went to war with India.
These strikes appear to be calculated at convincing Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari that the United States is willing to use the predator drones to attack Islamic opponents of the regime in Islamabad. From the New York Times:
The strikes are another sign that President Obama is continuing, and in some cases extending, Bush administration policy in using American spy agencies against terrorism suspects in Pakistan, as he had promised to do during his presidential campaign. At the same time, Mr. Obama has begun to scale back some of the Bush policies on the detention and interrogation of terrorism suspects, which he has criticized as counterproductive.
Mr. Mehsud was identified early last year by both American and Pakistani officials as the man who had orchestrated the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister and the wife of Pakistan's current president, Asif Ali Zardari. Mr. Bush included Mr. Mehsud's name in a classified list of militant leaders whom the C.I.A. and American commandos were authorized to capture or kill.
It is unclear why the Obama administration decided to carry out the attacks, which American and Pakistani officials said occurred last Saturday and again on Monday, hitting camps run by Mr. Mehsud's network. The Saturday strike was aimed specifically at Mr. Mehsud, but he was not killed, according to Pakistani and American officials.
The Monday strike, officials say, was aimed at a camp run by Hakeem Ullah Mehsud, a top aide to the militant. By striking at the Mehsud network, the United States may be seeking to demonstrate to Mr. Zardari that the new administration is willing to go after the insurgents of greatest concern to the Pakistani leader.
But American officials may also be prompted by growing concern that the militant attacks are increasingly putting the civilian government of Pakistan, a nation with nuclear weapons, at risk.
What is also interesting about the New York Times story is the following:
For months, Pakistani military and intelligence officials have complained about Washington's refusal to strike at Baitullah Mehsud, even while C.I.A. drones struck at Qaeda figures and leaders of the network run by Jalaluddin Haqqani, a militant leader believed responsible for a campaign of violence against American troops in Afghanistan.
According to one senior Pakistani official, Pakistan's intelligence service on two occasions in recent months gave the United States detailed intelligence about Mr. Mehsud's whereabouts, but said the United States had not acted on the information. Bush administration officials had charged that it was the Pakistanis who were reluctant to take on Mr. Mehsud and his network.
This appears to contradict the Pakistani position that the attack of the predator drones was counterproductive. For months, Pakistan has complained about drone attacks on the Jalaluddin Haqqani, Afghanistan's largest Taliban movement, perhaps because the Haqqani Network has ties to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). From the February 12th edition of the Dawn of Pakistan:
Officials familiar with the conversations say Mr Holbrooke was faced with universal opposition to the Predator strikes, which American officials say have helped disrupt the Qaeda network.
What, if anything, the Obama administration planned to do about the protests over the missile attacks was not clear, officials said.
Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi called the attacks "counter-productive" and said that Pakistan and the United States would form a joint team of officials to review policy differences, including the missile attacks.
My guess is that now that we are taking out militants whose focus is on Islamabad and not just on Kabul that some of the Pakistani leadership will be less critical of the attacks of the predator drones. No doubt, Pakistan will still have to raise the occasional ruckus for its own domestic consumption but it is quite probable that one of the messages that Ambassador Holbrooke delivered on his return from the region was that Pakistan would welcome help with its own Taliban. The President seems to have acquiesced on the request or perhaps better put the President believes that it is better to cooperate with Pakistan than continue to shun reality. While Pakistan is fragile and fragmented state, it is not yet a failed state. Saving Pakistan is now clearly more of a US strategic interest than it was under President Bush.
Just as a worrisome aside, the Meshud tribe of the Pasthuns was one the tribes that was never conquered by the British.