Drone strategy may fuel al-Qa'ida desire for revenge

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The Independent Online

Drone attacks operated by the CIA and targeting suspected militants in northern Pakistan – among them the notorious Haqqani network - have intensified over the past month even though officials in Islamabad insist the upsurge is not linked to a specific terror plot.

There have at least 21 strikes so far in September, a monthly record, as the administration of Barack Obama has widened its scope, now apparently aiming to kill both high and low-ranking militants. It was claimed this week a senior al-Qa'ida figure, identified as Shaikh al-Fateh, was killed in a strike last Saturday.

But a senior spokesman for the Pakistani military yesterday dismissed as "very speculative" claims that this month's volley of strikes, said to have killed more than 100 people, was connected to any particular terror plot being hatched in the country's remote tribal areas and said to have been blocked by European intelligence agencies.

Rather, analysts believe the upsurge in strikes, more than twice the monthly average, is linked to ongoing US efforts to try and maintain pressure on al-Qa'ida and Taliban militants responsible for cross-border attacks ahead of a review of Afghan strategy later this year. Having set in motion the timetable for its eventual departure from Afghanistan, and triggered the subsequent jockeying for position of other players, the US is more aware than ever of its limited ability to force the Pakistani military to move against militants it

considers national assets.

"It's also part of a longer game," said Prof Shaun Gregory, director of the Pakistan security research unit at the University of Bradford. "Even after the US pulls out of Afghanistan there will still be a need

for putting down pressure on al-Qa'ida.

The strikes, said to total more than 75 and some of them involving multiple drones in coordinated attacks, have largely focused on the wild tribal region of North Waziristan, considered a safe haven for both al-Qa'ida, Taliban and associated militants. Prime among the targets have been members of the Haqqani network, a father-and-son led outfit described by western intelligence agencies as the most potent

threat to US and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

The group is closely aligned with al-Qa'ida and the Afghan Taliban. It also has a longstanding relationship with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) and yet exerts influence over the Pakistani Taliban.

The group is now effectively headed by Sirajuddin Haqqani, a young, hot-headed commander, but remains symbolically under the control of his ailing, septuagenarian father, Jalaluddin Haqqani, a leader of the Afghan Mujahideen in the 1980s.

From their base in North Waziristan, the only tribal area left effectively unscathed by offensives launched by the Pakistan Army, the Haqqanis have launched spectacular and vicious attacks on both western troops and high profile targets in Kabul.

The group is blamed for the January 2008 assault on the Serena hotel, an assassination attempt on Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and the July 2008 bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, which killed more than 50 people. They also allegedly facilitated an attack by an al'Qa'ida double agent on a CIA outpost in Khost late last year in which seven agents died. The Haqqanis are believed to have introduced suicide bombing to Afghanistan, a tactic not seen there before.

Jalaluddin Haqqani rose to prominence as a mujahideen leader much favoured by the US. He was lavishly supported by the CIA and was once memorably described by Texan Congressman Charlie Wilson as "goodness personified". During this time, he also forged enduring bonds with two other major players in today's Afghan conflict: Osama Bin Laden and the ISI.

The friendship with Bin Laden was demonstrated in 1986, when he allowed the Saudi millionaire militant to erect his own base, known as the Lion's Den, in Haqqani-controlled territory. And when his erstwhile American sponsors invaded the country in 2001, Mr Haqqani is said to have helped the al-Qa'ida leader slip out of the country.

While the Americans fear the Haqqanis, their allies in the ISI consider the network one of its key betting chips when it comes to the fate of Afghanistan following a withdrawal of US troops. Earlier this year, Pakistan's military leadership drew closer to Mr Karzai and have offered to "deliver" the Haqqanis to the negotiating table.

Despite the Obama administration's belief that drone strikes targeting the Haqqanis and others are effective in killing militants, there is convincing evidence that many innocent civilians also lose their lives. The strikes are one of the reasons for often strident anger felt by Pakistanis towards the US and towards the civilian government headed by President Asif Ali Zardari.

Last year, David Kilkullen, a former adviser on counter-insurgency to Gen David Petraeus, said the hit rate of the drones was "unacceptably low" and that the strikes were further inciting militants. He recommended the policy be stopped. His advice was ignored.