Up to 18 missiles pounded a suspected Taliban stronghold in northern Pakistan yesterday in the latest US strike on militants since the attempted bombing in Times Square, New York.
In a surprisingly heavy bombardment, the missiles reportedly tore into compounds, cars and tents in the Doga area of North Waziristan. At least 14 people were killed and several others wounded. The specific target of the attack is not yet clear.
The strike by CIA-operated missiles fired from pilotless drones was the third in North Waziristan since the discovery of the car-bomb and the arrest of Pakistani American, Faisal Shazad, who has told the authorities he was trained by the Pakistan Taliban in a camp located there. There have been 30 such missile strikes this year, as the US has targetted militants either beyond the reach of the Pakistan military or else those it considers less of a priority.
“The US been pounding North Waziristan for some time. This is not new in itself,” said Christine Fair, a regional strategic analyst based in Washington. “One reason we have been doing that is because the Pakistan military is hesitant to go against those elements it considers its allies.”
Since the failed bombing on May 1 and the revelation that the Pakistan Taliban had a part in the plot, the US has been slowly ratcheting up the pressure on Islamabad to do more to take out militants in the border areas. The US is especially keen for military to open a new front in North Waziristan, a vipers’ nest of assorted militant groups including the Pakistan Taliban, fighters carrying out cross-border attacks inside Afghanistan and al-Qa’ida. Some analysts say the lines between such groups are becoming increasingly blurred.
The Pakistan military, which last year launched a major operation in neighbouring South Waziristan, a move that forced many militants – including senior leader Hakimullah Mehsud - to take refuge in North Waziristan, has said it is prepared to open a new front but wants to do in its own time. It has said to wants to first consolidate gains made in South Waziristan, Swat and Bajaur before committing more troops to what would be another difficult and bloody operation.
The US, which provides billions of dollars of military aid to Pakistan, has made clear its concerns. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton warned there would be “severe consequences” if an attack on American soil was traced to Pakistan. She added further pressure when she recently told an interviewer she believed that some elements with the Pakistan establishment were aware of the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden.
Wary of US motives at the best of times, Pakistani public opinion was rankled by Mrs Clinton’s statement. While some interpreted it as being crafted for domestic consumption, others stridently denounced it as the latest demonstration of American bullying. Even liberal newspapers committed to fighting militancy warned of the statement’s unintended effects. “Ms Clinton’s comments are unfortunate and will rekindle suspicions here that America is no real friend of Pakistan,” said an editorial in Dawn.
A much greater fear is that the US may decide that it has no option but to take matters in its own hands. While Islamabad should be able to absorb any political fallout from further drone strikes, however unpopular, the real worry for Pakistan’s generals and politicians is if Washington decides to dispatch troops. “It would be truly disastrous,” said Aftab Sherpao, a former interior minister. The mere presence of foreign troops, he added, would dangerously inflame public opinion, weakening the hand of the civilian government.
In September 2008, the only known case of an American “boots on the ground” operation triggered a chorus of outrage, led by army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani. To avert such a possibility, Pakistan will have to take action. “The army realises that it must go into North Waziristan,” says retired general Talat Masood. “They have been looking at this option for quite some time, but they have been hesitant as they are overstretched Pakistan is also worried that North Waziristan could become a source of domestic instability. “It’s a very complex area,” said Mr Masood, “Particularly because there are elements there that are not so hostile to the Pakistani military.” He was referring to the Haqqani network – an al-Qa’ida-linked Afghan Taliban group that poses a threat to the US in Afghanistan, but serves as a strategic asset for Pakistan’s intelligence services.
Intelligence official told Reuters that yesterday’s strike hit Dattakhel village, about 20 miles west of Miranshah, the main town in North Waziristan. “The militants have cordoned off the area, so far they’ve retrieved 11 bodies from the debris,” said one official. “The death toll may rise because the militants are still searching for bodies.”