ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The Pakistani Taliban’s No. 2 commander was killed in a suspected U.S. drone strike Wednesday, two Pakistani intelligence officials and a Pakistani Taliban commander said, a potentially significant blow to an insurgent group that has been linked to a series of brutal attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Reports of the drone strike came as Pakistan is transitioning to a new government, and it was the first since President Obama outlined restrictions on the administration’s targeted killing policy in a major counterterrorism speech last week. Under the policy, drone targets are narrowly defined as active members of al-Qaeda and associated groups overseas who pose an imminent threat to U.S. citizens.
Obama indicated that different rules would continue to apply in the border region of Pakistan, which is used as a base by militant groups to carry out cross-border attacks against U.S. troops. The United States considers that area part of the Afghanistan war theater, where Obama said drone operations would continue until the withdrawal of U.S. forces at the end of next year.
U.S. officials declined to confirm the strike, which was the first on Pakistani soil in six weeks. Two officials in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal area, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said at least four people were killed in the strike early Wednesday near the town of Miran Shah, including Wali ur-Rehman, a deputy to Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud. A Pakistani Taliban commander in the region also said Rehman was killed.
Their reports could not be independently confirmed, and numerous militant leaders — including Mehsud — have been falsely reported as killed by drones only to quickly resurface. Asked whether Rehman had been killed, a Taliban spokesman, Ensanullah Ehsan, said in a telephone interview Wednesday that he had “no such information.”
Rehman has been a key leader in the Pakistani Taliban, an ally of the Afghan Taliban that is waging war against the Pakistani state in a bid to impose Islamic law. It focuses most of its operations inside Pakistan, where it has claimed responsibility for attacks that have killed thousands of civilians and security forces.
Rehman is the group’s chief military strategist, according to the State Department, which in 2010 offered a $5 million reward for information that would help authorities find him. The United States says he has participated in cross-border attacks against U.S. and NATO personnel in Afghanistan and was involved in a 2009 attack that killed seven Americans at a CIA facility in Khost, Afghanistan.
“We will continue to take strikes against high-value al-Qaeda targets, but also against forces that are massing to support attacks on coalition forces,” a senior Obama administration official said Wednesday. The official said that the Pakistani Taliban “has repeatedly threatened to attack the United States,” most recently following last month’s Boston Marathon bombing.
The strike could complicate Washington’s relations with Pakistan’s newly elected government, which is preparing to take office after a national election that featured ample debate about the U.S. drone campaign in Pakistan. The number of drone strikes in Pakistan has declined sharply over the past four years, from a high of 117 in 2010 to 14 so far this year, according to statistics maintained by the Long War Journal.
Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who is expected to regain that post when the newly elected National Assembly meets next week, has demanded an end to the drone strikes and said he plans to take up the issue with the Obama administration.
The Pakistani government condemned the strike Wednesday, calling drone attacks “counterproductive” because they entail “the loss of innocent civilian lives, have human rights and humanitarian implications and violate the principles of national sovereignty, territorial integrity and international law.”
But Rehman’s death might be welcomed by some in the Pakistani government and military, which have long faulted the United States for targeting al-Qaeda and Afghan insurgents while failing to strike or capture top Pakistani Taliban leaders such as Maulana Fazlul Rahman Khalil, who is believed to be in Afghanistan.
A blow to the Pakistani Taliban might also strengthen the hand of a future government led by Sharif, who said last week he might be willing to engage with the group in peace talks. Mehmood Shah, a retired Pakistani brigadier general, said the latest strike is unlikely to complicate potential negotiations because the group’s leadership is already splintered.
Yet Shah said the high-profile strike — and the Pakistani government’s condemnation of it — highlight the challenges facing Sharif in addressing both Washington and the insurgency.
“Although this man belongs to a terrorist organization in Pakistan, the right to take his life should be done under proper law instead of a foreign government taking his life,” Shah said.
Muhammad Amir Rana, a Pakistani security analyst, said that based on preliminary information, the strike on Wednesday appears consistent with revised U.S. policy.
“We will see such limited drone strikes happening in future, but with much more accountability and care being taken that only terrorists are taken out,” Rana said.
Khan reported from Peshawar, Pakistan. Karen DeYoung and Greg Miller in Washington and Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.