The Obama administration has dramatically escalated the drone bombing campaign targeting Al Qaeda, the Taliban and other extremist groups in Pakistan, carrying out 53 strikes last year, compared to 36 in 2008; a 47 percent increase. In retaliation, Taliban networks operating in western Pakistan, have launched a smart-bomb counteroffensive of their own using suicide bombers.
Last month’s attack that killed seven CIA operatives and guards at FOB Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan, was only the latest and most prominent of a series of suicide bombings, primarily in Pakistan, that have killed hundreds of Pakistani security forces, tribal militia and civilians.
The CIA’s response to the attack on its own has been to send in even more drones. Already this year, there have been five drone bombing runs targeting extremists in North Waziristan; six strikes since the suicide attack at COP Chapman. Never has the U.S. conducted six strikes in so short a time, notes friend of the Buzz, Bill Roggio, over at the invaluable Long War Journal, as the pace of the drone bombing has reaches a new intensity. He reports that five aerial drones are operating in North Waziristan.
Roggio has put together a data rich analysis of the U.S. aerial bombing offensive targeting Al Qaeda, the Taliban and other extremist groups in Pakistan, complete with a list of all high-value targets killed by drone strikes since 2004. Roggio notes that 15 senior Al Qaeda folks and one Taliban leader have been killed since the drone bombing campaign picked up in August 2008.
U.S. bombs and Hellfire missiles have also taken out 16 “mid-level” al Qaeda and Taliban leaders (For an analysis of what differentiates “senior” from “mid-level, read Roggio’s piece). Prime targets for the CIA/Blackwater/military operated drones have been al Qaeda’s “external operations network,” the Pakistani Taliban and the Haqqani network, perhaps the most lethal of the various insurgent groups fighting American troops in Afghanistan.
In a video released through Al Jazeera last week, the Jordanian suicide bomber who killed the CIA operatives appears with Hakeemullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban. Roggio notes that a close operational connection exists between the Haqqani network and the Mehsud branch of the Pakistani Taliban.
The ruthless Haqqani network has become the favorite target of the drone fleet: 10 of the last 15 strikes in 2009 targeted Haqqani operatives. Yet, the difficulties the U.S. faces in gathering targetable intelligence on the Haqqani leadership is shown by the relatively low success rate: just 7 high-value targets killed, despite a high number of bombs dropped (dozens of Haqqani foot soldiers have been killed in air strikes, including 26 in late November).
The Haqqani network is based in eastern Afghanistan and the Taliban controlled area of North Waziristan in Pakistan and is noted for its expertise in IED attacks. Roggio provides some good detail on the Haqqani network that’s well worth a read, cataloging its emergence as the most dangerous of the numerous extremist groups operating in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
As for the bombing campaign’s overall effectiveness, Roggio notes that both the U.S. and the Pakistani military have been forced to significantly increase troop deployments and offensive operations on both sides of the border. Reading his analysis, its difficult to conclude that drone strikes alone, without a robust deployment of ground troops to Taliban controlled areas, can do much more than continue to inflict a steady, though not crippling, attrition of al Qaeda and Taliban leaders. The strikes are only as good as the intelligence fed to the drone’s operators.
Counterinsurgency advisers David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum, both of the Center for a New American Security in Washington DC, have made a reasoned critique of the drone bombing campaign and called for ending strikes inside Pakistan. The strikes inevitably kill large numbers of innocent civilians, they argue (Roggio contends that Pakistani civilian casualties are overstated), and produce limited successful outputs for the thousands of hours of required intelligence and surveillance inputs.
As long as the drones continue to kill bad guys and as long as the Obama administration feels itself politically vulnerable to accusations of being soft on terrorism, the strikes will continue.
Like most aerial bombing campaigns, this one has settled into a war of attrition between the world’s most technologically advanced military conducting stand-off precision strikes and an asymmetric opponent that wraps their most fanatic fighters in high explosives and ball bearings and sends them against primarily soft targets. Like most wars of attrition, this one is bound to be a very long one, as the U.S. has an unlimited number of precision bombs in its arsenal, but so too does the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda.