By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 23, 2009 1:49 PM
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Jan. 23 -- At least 20 people were killed in northwest Pakistan near the border of Afghanistan on Friday in two suspected U.S. missile strikes, marking the first such attack in Pakistan's tribal areas since President Obama's inauguration.
A U.S. Predator drone fired three missiles at a compound about two miles from the town of Mirali in the tribal area of North Waziristan about 5:15 p.m., according to a Pakistani security official and local residents. The precision strike leveled a compound, which was owned by local tribal elder Khalil Malik, killing at least 10 suspected militants, including five foreign nationals, according to the Pakistani security official. The site of the attack is about 30 miles east of the Afghan border.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said Malik was killed along with his brother and nephew. Authorities in North Waziristan, however, said they have been so far unable to identify any of those killed because militants immediately cordoned off the area. "I suspect a high-value target may be among the dead," the Pakistani security official said.
Jan Mohammad, a local tribesman, said Malik and his relatives probably died in the strike, which sparked panic among Malik's neighbors. Mohammad said that Malik was an influential tribal elder but that he was not known to have links with the Pakistani Taliban or other insurgent groups in the area.
There were conflicting accounts about the number of casualties in the first attack. Local residents said there were at least 11 bodies, but Pakistani television channels said 10 were killed.
The second strike occurred about three hours later near the tribal capital of Wana in South Waziristan, according to a Pakistani political official in the area. A U.S. drone fired two missiles at a compound in the small village of Gangikhel, a little less than 20 miles from the border with Afghanistan. Few details of that attack were available, but local residents said at least 10 were killed and two injured.
Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, a spokesman for the Pakistani army, declined to comment on the strike, referring calls to the Pakistani Foreign Ministry. A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry also declined to comment.
The United States generally does not comment on or confirm whether it is behind missile attacks. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs refused to take questions about the incident at his regular briefing for reporters in Washington on Friday.
The two targeted areas are separated by about 60 miles and long stretches of rugged, ungoverned mountainous terrain. Yet they are bound together by a common allegiance among many ethnic Pashtun tribesmen to two separate insurgent networks in North and South Waziristan. In North Waziristan, hundreds of tribesman have joined a group led by Jalaluddin Haqqani, a rebel Afghan fighter, and his son, Sirajuddin Haqqani. The Haqqani Network has been linked to dozens of suicide and roadside bomb attacks on U.S., coalition and Afghan government forces in Afghanistan, including an assassination attempt last April on Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Although Jalaluddin Haqqani, who received backing from the CIA during the Soviet incursion in Afghanistan in the 1980s, is considered the spiritual head of the group, Sirajuddin is frequently credited with being head of operations.
The Haqqani Network has been battered by missile strikes in Pakistan and aggressive U.S.-led ground raids into territory controlled by the group in the eastern Afghan provinces of Khost and Paktika. Reports of arrests of suspected operatives and strikes on bomb-making compounds have increased within in the past three months with dozens killed and scores detained by coalition forces operating near the border.
In South Waziristan, a number of missile attacks have targeted compounds linked to Pakistani Taliban leader Mullah Nazir. Nazir was appointed the top Taliban commander of the Ahmedzai Wazir tribe in 2006, two years after a U.S. missile strike killed another top Taliban leader known to foster foreign fighters, Nek Mohammed.
At least 132 people have been killed in 38 suspected U.S. missile strikes inside Pakistan since August as the administration of President George W. Bush stepped up pressure on Pakistan to pursue more aggressively Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents in the country's tribal areas.
Regional and intelligence experts say the strikes have improved in precision and have hit several top insurgent commanders in recent months. The notable change in tempo and reported accuracy could be partly attributed to a growing sense of urgency inside the Bush White House as the progress in the seven-year long war in Afghanistan stalled during the waning days of the administration.
Samina Ahmed, director of the International Crisis Group in Pakistan, attributes some of the change to increased cooperation between the United States and Pakistan.
"Given the fact that the past few strikes have actually gotten their targets with minimal or no civilian casualties, there is obviously better cooperation between the U.S. military and Pakistan," Ahmed said. "Now is that coming because of better cooperation from the U.S. military and Pakistani military? That's what the U.S. military seems to be saying. But you have to also consider whether it's not just the military but better cooperation with the civilian government and better human intelligence."
Ahmed and other experts have also noted a shift among U.S. intelligence officials from the use of technology to the use of human surveillance on the ground to pinpoint militant safe havens for such strikes. Suspicions among Taliban militants that coalition forces have deployed local spies in otherwise inaccessible tribal areas has sparked a wave of public executions that have killed dozens in recent months.
"As much as there has been an increase in strikes, there has been an increase in people executed as American spies. The militants don't need to give a reason to kill someone. So that it seems they're taking the threat of possible spies in their midst seriously," Ahmed said. "That type of human intelligence was missing before and perhaps is better now."
Although the Obama administration has signaled its intention to make a sharp break with some Bush policies, including using the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as a detention facility for suspected terrorists, the White House indicated that it will proceed cautiously in Pakistan and Afghanistan where the CIA has dominated U.S. strategy since 2001. Pakistani officials have said they are hopeful that the change in the White House will foster greater cooperation on security issues, particularly in the tribal areas where more than 2,000 people died last year in militant-related violence.
Zardari and other Pakistani officials were critical of the United States in the wake of several missile strikes last year. But there was notable silence in Islamabad about Friday's missile strikes with few public officials commenting on the attacks.
Special correspondent Haq Nawaz Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.