August 25, 2012

Drone Update From The Durand Line: Medium and Small Fish

Heaping more momentum on the recent flurry of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistani tribal territory, Washington has cashed in and brought its catch to the international market. On Saturday NATO announced that a late Friday air-strike (likely carried about by U.S. assets) eliminated Mullah Dadullah, commander of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan's (TTP) Bajaur branch, along with 12 other militants. The air-strike targeted the Shigal Sheltan district of Kunar province, near the border with Bajaur, dovetailing into Islamabad's demand that Washington "do more" on the Afghan side of the Durand Line.

Asad Munir, a retired Pakistan military brigadier and former intelligence chief in Peshawar, told The New York Times that Dadullah, “is a very calculated move that is likely to be appreciated by our army. Their complaint has been that American and Afghan forces are not targeting the Pakistani Taliban. This is a good sign.”

Of greater consequence, Badruddin Haqqani has surfaced as a casualty of the drone barrage in Shawal Valley, or possibly one of the air-strikes near North Waziristan’s administrative headquarters, Miran Shah. As the son of old-guard jihadist Jalaluddin and younger brother of Sirajuddon, Badruddin was responsible for the network's day-to-day operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. However this information remains unconfirmed, and of the two  Badruddin appears more likely to have survived. U.S. and Pakistani sources suspect that he was killed in "one of five volleys" that included at least 12 drones, according to tribal sources.

Two Pakistani intelligence officials say that their field agents are "90%” certain that he was killed in a Tuesday air-strike, "but acknowledged they haven’t spoken to anyone who has seen the body."

One "senior Taliban commander" also claimed that Badruddin had been killed, while "Pakistani Taliban and tribal sources" said they "believed" he was killed in the drone attack. A purported relative told Reuters that "such claims are baseless," and that Badruddin is currently "busy with his jihad activities."

While Washington is aglow with its potential score, the tactical situations in Afghanistan and Pakistan aren't so different from last week. Dadullah, for starters, is no "key" TTP commander but a substitute for Faqir Mohammed; having been immediately replaced, his absence will have a minimal impact in and around Bajaur. The twisted nature of mass media is something to behold - how quickly a second-string TTP commander in an obscure province morphs into "Taliban leader Mullah Dadullah"!

Perhaps most interestingly, another "senior Pakistani Taliban leader" in Bajaur alleges, "Someone planted a chip, which was used for spying purposes, on Mujahideen near his compound that helped the drone trace his whereabouts. Mulla Dadullah and his 12 other bodyguards were killed in the missile attack."

Badruddin's death would be more significant due to his unique position in the Haqqani family tree. Jalaluddin and Sirajuddon must now promote someone who is equally trustworthy and capable, and the latter could also become exposed to drone fire in the military shakeup. Tribal sources told The Dawn's Zahir Shah Sherazi that three fresh graves now mark the Haqqanis' "family graveyard," the family being "reluctant to arrange any death ceremonies amid persistent US drone flights in the area." Yet the very position of "day-to-day" commander is expendable by nature and Haqqanis have likely groomed a backup for Badruddin's position. The TTP's leadership bench also remains deep, blunting the impact of individual losses. All heads would have to be decapitated at once for U.S. drones to sever the network's head, but the most important figures are liable to disappear after this week's assault.

Badruddin's death, if true, will also produce blowback in Afghanistan.

The final question revolves around the strategic implications of Badruddin and Dadullah. U.S. spokesman Maj. Martyn Crighton stated that the strikes were coordinated independently of Pakistan, a position affirmed by the government's negative reaction. However the elimination of three mid-level targets (including the ETIM's Emeti Yakuf) suggests that Islamabad is trading intel with Washington, in order to placate its anger and possibly shield more valuable assets from attack. At a time when Pakistani figures are talking "divorce," enhanced cooperation between the two capitals would far outpace any progress on the military battlefield - if these strikes aren't still part of their decades-long game of chicken.


  1. Can't help but wonder even if US succeeds in doing serious damage to the Haqqani network if that would immediately result in Pakistan revoking overflight rights for drones. Would drones strikes then continue in defiance of national sovereignty or is Pakistan even too afraid to try to deny airspace for fear they don't have the capability and the military would be disgraced?

  2. Probably both.

    I doubt that Islamabad wants to enter into open hostilities with Washington either. The present arrangement is likely to continue at least until 2014, which should be about the time that Washington feels it can no longer wait to act unilaterally.