U.S. Drone Targets Taliban in Pakistan, at Least 6 Dead

By Joshua Partlow and Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 3, 2009; 4:19 PM

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, July 3 -- The followers of one of Pakistan's most feared Taliban commanders, Baitullah Mehsud, came under a fresh round of U.S. drone attacks Friday in bombings that killed at least six people, according to Pakistani government officials.

The missile attacks targeted a suspected Taliban camp and a religious school used by fighters in the rugged tribal border region of South Waziristan, said a local official from the region and a resident, who said at least 13 people were killed. A Pakistani military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, said he had no information about whether senior fighters had been killed in the attack.

Such American bombardments have become the focus of widespread, emotional outrage among the Pakistani public and an uncomfortable issue with the country's civilian and military leadership, who privately support them but must be sensitive to the depth of public animosity.

The most recent attacks targeting Baitullah Mehsud's network, however, suggest that there is a new level of coordination and common strategy between Pakistani and U.S. efforts at a time when both countries' militaries are engaged in major operations against the Taliban.

American officials do not publicly comment on individual drone strikes as a rule. They are usually first reported by civilians or officials in the area of the attack and confirmed by Pakistani officials.

A common criticism about the drone attacks among Pakistani officials centers around the fact that U.S. officials have tended to target Taliban or Al Qaeda leadership that are central to their fight in Afghanistan and elsewhere, rather than the Taliban leaders, such as Mehsud, who cause havoc on Pakistani soil. But Friday's strike followed another U.S. drone attack in South Waziristan on June 23 that struck a militant commander's funeral in South Waziristan and reportedly came close to killing Mehsud. The attack left 50 people dead, but Mehsud reportedly left the ceremony shortly beforehand.

"That public posture is a bit of a shadow play," said Shuja Nawaz, an analyst and director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington. "There is much greater collaboration and cooperation than they let on. Now that the U.S. is concentrating on Baitullah, I'm sure the Pakistanis are grateful."

Mehsud, who commands hundreds if not thousands of followers, has become perhaps the single most important target for the Pakistani military, which has strafed their homes and hideouts on bombing runs in recent weeks and are preparing a possible invasion of ground troops into South Waziristan. Mehsud's group is considered responsible for many of the more than 30 suicide bombings this year that have claimed hundreds of lives in Pakistan.

"Historically speaking all these suicide bombers we trace go back to South Waziristan. Our main leads always point to South Waziristan," Rehman Malik, Pakistan's Interior Minister, said in an interview.

But U.S. and Pakistan's interests in this fight against the Taliban do not always converge. As the U.S. Marines continue their major operation in Helmand province in Afghanistan, many Pakistanis fear that this pressure could force more fighters to seek refuge in Pakistan.

"We are concerned about that and it is a serious matter for us in the sense that we do not want infiltration of militants or extremists from across the border," said Pakistan's foreign ministry spokesman, Abdul Basit. "We have been discussing this issue with the U.S., NATO and other foreign nations."

The Pakistani military, which keeps about 50,000 troops on its western border with Afghanistan, said this week it will rearrange border forces to send more troops to the Baluchistan area of southern Pakistan across from Helmand to try to stem any influx. "They will want to run away from there," Abbas said of the Taliban in Helmand.

But such an effort, on a lengthy and porous border, at a time when the Pakistani Army is stretched by fighting battles elsewhere, may be largely futile.

"The area is quite long, and its not possible to monitor the whole border line," said Mehmud Jan, editor of the Baluchistan Tribune, a newspaper in Quetta. "It's not necessary to get a visa. One can easily go from side to side."

Such a flow of fighters, or of refugees, could also exascerbate ethnic tensions between Pashtuns coming across from Afghanistan and Baluch people in Pakistan, whose relations are already strained. "If large numbers of people flee the area and move across into Baluchistan, that could create a certain amount of volatility and destabilitze the border area," said Rifaat S. Hussain, professor of defense and strategic studies at Quaid-I-Azam University in Islamabad.

As the fighting continued on Friday, a Pakistani army transport helicopter crashed down near the border of the Orakzai and Khyber tribal regions in northwestern Pakistan, killing 26 people on board, government officials said. A mechanical failure caused the crash, according to the officials, but a Taliban commander south of Peshawar, Tariq Afridi, told local journalists that the Taliban shot down the aircraft.

Special correspondents Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar and Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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