Insurgents forced out of Pakistan's tribal havens form smaller cells in heart of nation

By Griff Witte and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 19, 2009

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- Militants forced to flee their havens in Pakistan's mountainous tribal areas are establishing new, smaller cells in the heart of the country and have begun carrying out attacks nationwide, U.S. and Pakistani officials say.

The spread of fighters is an unintended consequence of a relatively successful effort by the United States and Pakistan to disrupt the insurgents' operations, through missile strikes launched by unmanned CIA aircraft and a ground offensive carried out this fall in South Waziristan by the Pakistani army.

American and Pakistani officials say the militants' widening reach has added to the challenge for both nations' intelligence, which must now track an insurgent diaspora that can infiltrate Pakistan's teeming cities and blend seamlessly with the local population. A Pakistani intelligence official said the offensive had put militants "on the run" but added: "Now they're all over -- Afghanistan, North Waziristan and inside Pakistan."

"They have scattered their network and structure," said Muhammad Amir Rana, director of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, a security-oriented think tank. "It's easy for many of them to hide in Punjab or Karachi."

Pakistani officials insist that they are doing as much as they can to counter the extremist threat and that they are paying the price. In recent months, militants have unleashed a wave of attacks in Punjab province, the military's home base, with many of the strikes carried out by fighters who have left the Federally Administered Tribal Areas as the pressure there has mounted.

But the flow of militants out of the tribal areas has frustrated U.S. intelligence, which escalated the missile strikes using drone aircraft this year but has found targets increasingly scarce in recent months. Because of the Pakistani government's opposition, the CIA has not expanded its campaign of drone warfare beyond the lawless tribal belt in the northwest that hugs the Afghan border.

The United States has threatened to enlarge the scope of its drone campaign unless Pakistan steps up its efforts against insurgent groups that have found sanctuary in the country and that focus on attacking U.S. troops in Afghanistan. But with anti-Americanism on the rise in Pakistan, drone attacks outside the tribal belt could elicit a powerful public backlash and could jeopardize Pakistani military cooperation, officials here say.

Until this week, the pace of reported drone strikes in the tribal areas had been off sharply from summer highs. Although 2009 has set a record -- 50 drone strikes, compared with 31 last year -- the tempo declined this fall from six or seven per month to about two, according to a tally by the nonprofit group Long War Journal. In addition, until last week, there had been a three-month lull in reported deaths of senior al-Qaeda or Taliban operatives.

This week, however, has brought a surge in strikes: Suspected Predator drones killed six people Friday, and a barrage of as many as 11 missiles on Thursday killed 16. The strikes, all in North Waziristan, came just days after top U.S. military officials visited Pakistan and urged the government to broaden its offensive into that area. Pakistan declined, saying such a move would stretch its military too thin.

Pakistani officials complain that although the drone strikes help incite insurgent attacks against domestic targets, the United States generally does not go after militants who focus their firepower inside Pakistan. Instead, the officials say, the drones are trained on those Taliban and al-Qaeda commanders who are most troublesome for U.S. commanders in Afghanistan.

U.S. intelligence officials refuse to comment on drone strikes in Pakistan, or even to publicly acknowledge CIA involvement in such flights.

Still, American intelligence officials said the drop in reported incidents this fall does not indicate any slackening in the intensity of U.S. efforts to strike al-Qaeda and its allies in the tribal region.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company