Eye on Afghanistan -- Analysis // Ben FrankelLatest U.S. UAV strike in Pakistan signals change of strategy

Published 19 February 2009

A 7 February UAV strike on targets inside Pakistan killed 30; it was the fifth such attack since the beginning of the year — and the second since Obama took office; there were two things different about this attack: Its main target was a Pakistani insurgent leader, and it was launched from inside Pakistan

Back in mid-2007, in an analysis article titled “Attack UAV Squadron Deployed to Iraq This Week,” we wrote that “The U.S. hints that it would take more aggressive action against terrorists hiding in Pakistan’s northwest territories; Pakistanis should note first-ever deployment of attack UAV squadron to Iraq this week” (18 July 2007 HS Daily Wire).

Six months later, the Bush administration began a quiet, and lethal, UAV campaign against al-Qaeda bases and hideouts in Pakistan Northwest Territories. During 2008 there have been nearly forty such attacks.

Robert Gates, Bush’s secretary of defense who is continuing in this role under President Barack Obama, told Congress in mid-January that the Obama administration would “intensify” the attacks on al-Qaeda targets inside Pakistan. Indeed, during its first three weeks in office, the new administration has already launched two deadly UAV attacks inside Pakistan (so far in 2009, there have been five UAV attacks inside Pakistan, the first three under the Bush administration).

The last attack took place on Saturday two weeks ago, when two missiles fired from American drone aircraft killed more than 30 people, including al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, near the Pakistani border with Afghanistan. The missiles struck three compounds, including one where the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, and foreign and local fighters loyal to him sometimes gather, the official and residents said. The New York Times’s Pir Zubair Shah writes that Mehsud, one of the most feared leaders in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas, was not among those killed, according to a Pakistani official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

Mehsud, a Pakistani, has fought the government openly in the past, and government and intelligence officials say forces loyal to him continue to attack Pakistani troops in the Swat Valley and the Bajaur and Mohmand tribal areas. The previous government, led by Pervez Musharraf, accused Mehsud in the killing of Benazir Bhutto, a former Pakistani prime minister.

Now, there are two intriguing aspects to the 7 February attack, both shedding light on what Gates meant when he told lawmakers that the Obama administration would intensify the U.S. campaign against terrorists and their supporters in Pakistan:

  • Mehsud was the target of the attack in South Waziristan. This would be the first time that American missiles were aimed at him. Missile attacks in Pakistan by remotely piloted aircraft operated by the CIA have generally been aimed