Revenge on the Taliban, from 10,000 feet

By David Ignatius
Thursday, February 4, 2010

In their joint operations against Taliban militants hiding in the tribal areas, the United States and Pakistan seem to have embraced a classic bit of battlefield advice: Don't get mad, get even.

Since the beginning of 2010, the United States has stepped up the pace of its Predator strikes, with quiet Pakistani support. These attacks appear to have killed Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, top lieutenant Qarimullah Hussain, who trained Taliban suicide bombers, and other key members of the insurgency, a senior administration official said Tuesday.

Though the Predators launch their Hellfire missiles from the lofty altitude of 10,000 feet, make no mistake: This is an intense and unrelenting campaign of assassination. It continued Tuesday with a fusillade of at least 17 missiles in North Waziristan, in an apparent assault on senior al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

The Predator blitz this year followed a Dec. 30 suicide attack on a CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan, that had been active in targeting the Taliban insurgents across the border. That attack killed eight CIA personnel and left the agency eager to settle scores. The agency, backed by Pakistani intelligence, has done just that.

Hakimullah, who was hit Jan. 14, had posed in a taunting video with the Jordanian double agent who carried out the Khost bombing. Hakimullah also took credit for a wave of terrorist attacks across Pakistan that traumatized that nation.

Although Pakistan publicly criticizes the drone attacks, the administration official argued that the recent campaign "is being done in full concert and cooperation" with the Pakistani government. "We've been very pleased with the extent of the cooperation," the official said, adding that the "box" of geographical coordinates within which the Pakistanis allow the Predators to operate was wide enough to permit attacks on targets that are "geographically dispersed."

The Pakistanis have their own heavy score to settle with the Taliban, whose bombing attacks have stretched from Peshawar to Lahore. The Pakistani spy service, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, has been a special target, with attacks on some of its senior officers and regional headquarters. That's one reason the Pakistanis have been cooperative; they're angry and they want revenge.

"It became personal for the ISI," said the senior administration official. Enraged by the attacks on their colleagues, Pakistani officers have helped the CIA gather intelligence in the tribal areas. The Predator barrage "has given the Pakistanis some breathing room," the administration official said.

U.S. officials were frustrated last year that although Islamabad blessed attacks on the Pakistani Taliban fighters who were setting off bombs at home, the Pakistanis were reluctant to strike insurgents linked with the Afghan Taliban, such as the Haqqani network and the so-called Quetta Shura, who were killing U.S. soldiers. This still concerns U.S. officials, but they note some expansion of targets.

The Pakistanis now recognize that there is "more of a blending together and a co-location of these groups," the senior official explained. "There's much more mingling, and to us, it demonstrates the collusion." He said the Pakistanis, too, had come to "recognize that militant organizations are operating across groups."

The U.S.-Pakistani cooperation extends to other activities as well. A senior Pentagon official said Tuesday that in Bajaur, a tribal area bordering Afghanistan, the two countries' military operations were "much more coordinated" across the two sides of the border.

The collaboration comes despite public accounts of friction, as was the case during the recent visit to Pakistan by Defense Secretary Bob Gates. Officials from both countries said Tuesday that those reports had been overdrawn. A Pakistani military official said, for example, that a day after stories that the Pakistanis would delay any offensive in North Waziristan, they launched an airstrike there. North Waziristan has also been a target for the Predator salvos.

American military involvement in Pakistan surfaced in a bloody incident Wednesday in which three American soldiers were among those killed by a car bomb in a border district known as Lower Dir. The soldiers were part of a group of about 80 Special Forces members who have been training the Pakistani Frontier Corps, which operates in the tribal areas. The Frontier Corps has been stepping up operations against insurgents in tribal areas such as Bajaur, Orakzai, Kurram and Khyber, a Pakistani source said Tuesday.

The tensions in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship remain, and it's unlikely that Islamabad will be trumpeting publicly the success of the drone attacks. But the slaughter of Pakistani civilians and the brazen attacks on the country's military have made the Pakistanis want to fight back.

"Drone attack" has become a vernacular phrase in Urdu, but it may not be spoken with quite as much vituperation today as it was a few months ago, before the suicide bombers went about their bloody work in Pakistan's cities and towns.

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