U.S. steps up missile strikes in Pakistan’s northwest

February 16, 2009

U.S. missile strikes in Pakistan have killed more than 50 people in the past three days in what appears to be an escalation of the military campaign in the troubled region along the Afghan border, conducted largely by unmanned drone aircraft.

On Saturday, a remote-controlled US drone bombed compounds in South Waziristan, killing at least 25 people. And on Monday, another US drone struck the Kurram tribal region, killing 26. Kurram had not been targeted earlier, so in that sense it represented a broadening of the campaign, while the high death toll speaks for the intensity of the strikes.

Both attacks appeared aimed at militants loyal to Baitullah Mehsud, the Taliban leader in Pakistan, the New York Times said.

The United States has now targetted Pakistan four times since President Barack Obama took office last month, ending any lingering expectations that he might reverse the course set by the previous administration in hunting al Qaeda and the Taliban holed up in the northwest region. Indeed the strikes are a reminder of Obama’s campaign promise that the United States would go after al Qaeda inside Pakistan if it was unable or unwilling to do so.

For Pakistan the strikes come at a time when it is seething over remarks by a U.S. senator who said that Predator drone aircraft that were carrying out the strikes were being flown from an air base inside Pakistan. With Pakistani newspapers latching on to Senator Diane Feinstein’s remarks at a Senate intelligence committee hearing, a weak civilian government is running for cover.

Up until now, as Danger Room blog  said, Islamabad had sort of kept up a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy on the Predator strikes which are deeply unpopular in the country.  Officials would denounce the strikes in public while also taking a sneak look at the planes’ video feeds, it said.

But it is a high risk game, and some military experts are warning that continuing  strikes on Pakistani villages would prove to be counterproductive.

Dave Kilcullen, a counterinsurgency expert, told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this month that  “the current approach is having a severely destabilizing effect on Pakistan and risks spreading the conflict further, or even prompting the collapse of the Pakistani state, a scenario that would dwarf any of the problems we have yet faced in Iraq or Afghanistan.”

Or as Pakistani defence analyst  Shireen M. Mazari wrote in The News : ”Where there is no law and where the state becomes the perpetrator of extrajudicial killings – which is what the drone attack victims are in essence – the legal and moral void will continue to be filled with an ever increasing cycle of violence.”

Chilling words from both of them.

[Photos of Pakistani tribesmen holding funeral prayers for victims of missile attack and unmanned Predator plane]

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