August 24, 2012

Drone Spike In North Waziristan: Real Smoke or Smokescreen?

Another six Hellfire missiles have fallen on the Pakistani tribal territory of North Waziristan, marking the fifth drone strike since last Saturday. Prior bombardments have focused around the local capital of Miran Shah, which serves a number of militant commanders in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and the nearby Shawal Valley. Friday's attack targeted three separate locations in the valley, injecting new urgency into the speculation over a Pakistani military operation.

This conclusion is less certain than it appears though. Similar to past drone strikes in Shawel, the valley's networked structure adds to the difficulty in gauging U.S. targets and the motivation behind their selection. The area is administered by Hafiz Gul Bahadur, whose militia controls the whole of North Waziristan and provides safe passage or refuge to various militant groups: pure al-Qaeda loyalists, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Haqqani network and East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Bahadur maintains a years-long truce with Islamabad despite both sides' repeated threats to attack, leaving his territory relatively hospitable to his guests, and they all in turn direct their focus on Afghanistan.

Bahadur's arrangement forms a primary wedge in U.S.-Pakistani relations. Although the Pentagon and CIA promote their drone campaign in North and South Waziristan as wildly successful, neither has ceased lobbying for a full-scale military campaign to clear the area. Nor are they incorrect in believing that drone strikes can only loosen Pakistan's militant network, not destroy it entirely. The main dilemma is that Washington and Islamabad cannot afford the resources (military and non-military) or time that the mission requires, leaving drones as the only "realistic option" to apply military pressure. As a result, a barrage of drone strikes more often serves as an indicator that a Pakistani operation isn't moving forward. Washington is simply hunting for big game and killing as many of Bahadur and the Haqqanis' men as possible before 2015.

Last Saturday's attack allegedly targeted Bahadur's militia directly, but reporting on subsequent attacks has been more ambiguous. Friday's attack brought a new variable into the equation: ETIM'S Emeti Yakuf. Reportedly killed in the Tandar area of Shawal, Yakuf was one of eight figures identified by the Chinese as ETIM's original "core." Of more relevance, Beijing places him at the head of ETIM's "recruitment, organizing terrorism training and spreading extremism and terrorism." U.S. drones have eliminated several of ETIM's heads as part of a quid pro quo with the Chinese, giving rise to a scenario independent of Operation Tight Screw.

Two TTP commanders were also reportedly killed but they remain unidentified.

National reporting inside Pakistan adds more dimension to North Waziristan's fog of war. Local residents are cited as witnessing an organized retreat by Arab and "Central Asian" fighters, presumably ETIM's collection of Uzbeks, Turkmenis, Tajiks and Chechnyans. However anonymous Pakistani sources claim that the targeted individuals were conducting firing drills at their camps. Other locals report that the TTP is patrolling the area, adding that nearby tribesman "did not seem overly concerned about reports of an upcoming military operation." Given these factors and many others, is the latest string of drone strikes softening the ground for Pakistan's side of "Operation Tight Screw?" Is Washington responding to Islamabad's pushback, as if to lead its military in the direction of its drones?

Or are these strikes no more than military favors and normal occurrences in the Reaper's ebb and flow?

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