U.S. Predator strikes cripple al Qaeda in Pakistan?

February 6, 2009

America’s ramped-up Predator drone campaign against al Qaeda in Pakistan’s northwest is starting to pay off, according to U.S. and Pakistani intelligence authorities quoted in a clutch of media reports.

Eleven of the group’s top 20 “high value targets” along the Afghan border have been eliminated in the past six months  Newsweek magazine reports, citing Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

The strikes by the unmanned drones circling high above Pakistan’s rugged tribal areas have been so pin-pointed that in one case a missile fired at a hideout in North Waziristan didn’t just hit the right house, but the room in which Mustafa al-Misri (“Mustafa the Egyptian”) and several other Qaeda operatives were holed up. the magazine reports, quoting a Taliban sub-commander.

A U.S. counter-terrorism official goes so far as to suggest that the CIA-directed strikes have been so successful that it was possible to foresee a “complete al Qaeda defeat” in the mountainous region , according to this report in America’s National Public Radio.

Is that stretching the gains,  a bit too triumphalist a picture?

Al Qaeda’s leadership cadre had been “decimated” with up to a dozen senior and mid-level operatives killed as a  result of the strikes and the remaining leaders reeling from the attacks, U.S. officials say in the NPR report, adding achievements of the past several months should not be under-stated.

“In the past, you could take out the No. 3 al-Qaeda leader, and No. 4 just moved up to take his place,”  NPR quoted a U.S. official as saying. “Well, if you take out No. 3, No. 4 and then 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10, it suddenly becomes a lot more difficult to revive the leadership cadre.”

What has changed ?
One, according to Newsweek, greater assistance from Pakistani intelligence agencies who have finally started helping the Americans track and kill members of al Qaeda in the lawless frontier belt.

Two, there has been some kind of purge in the ISI, with 140 pro-Islamist officers mustered out of the agency since September, it quotes a diplomatic official in Washington as saying.

Another reason, according to NPR, is the introduction of the Reaper  hunter drone,  an enhanced verion of the Predator that can carry two Hellfire missiles, as well precision-guided missiles.

Time to declare victory ?  Far from it. Indeed these reports come just when U.S. supply lines to Afghanistan through Pakistan have again been hit again with the bombing of a bridge in the Khyber pass, and  Pakistani forces are struggling to regain control of the Swat valley from Taliban militants after a year of fighting. Why, even Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province remains to some, a city essentially under siege.

That doesn’t suggest a waning of militant forces in the region.

Perhaps the best conclusion you can draw is that the Predator strikes have had an impact on al Qaeda’s ability to strike at the United States, but the group is by no means decimated.

Bill Roggio, writing in The Weekly Standard Blog, says Taliban and al Qaeda control in Pakistan and Afghanistan has actually expanded since the 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate which concluded that al Qaeda had  regenerated its network in northwest Pakistan and maintained a safe haven there. Here is a PDF of the declassified NIE.

“Despite Pakistani claims to the contrary, the Pakistani Army is losing ground in the northwest while NATO is still searching for the right strategy in Afghanistan, where the Taliban legitimately claim much of the rural regions are under their control,” Roggio says warning against making overly optimistic claims.

[File pictures of a Predator drone and a protest in Peshawar]


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