ISLAMABAD, (Reuters) – A U.S. unmanned drone aircraft that nearly killed Pakistan’s Taliban leader may encourage the CIA to keep up its campaign to eliminate high-profile militants by remote control.
But the strikes may only have limited success and generate more anti-American sentiment in Pakistan, which the United States sees as a front-line state in its war against Islamic militancy.
Taliban officials said Pakistan Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud was slightly wounded last week after being targeted by a drone, unmanned aircrafts Washington says are key to defeating al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Coming just days after Mehsud appeared in a farewell video with the suicide bomber who killed CIA agents in Afghanistan, the apparent revenge attack in northwest Pakistan was a reminder that drones are highly capable of eliminating top Taliban leaders.
Analysts say the high-tech aircraft — designed to throw al Qaeda and Taliban operations into disarray — are unlikely to break resilient militant groups in the long term and may only generate more anti-American anger in U.S. ally Pakistan.
“Ultimately this is not really an effective weapon. The intent is, that if you can kill off or decapitate a significant extent of the leadership, that you can cause a rift within the movement,” said Kamran Bokhari, regional director for the Middle East and South Asia at STRATFOR global intelligence firm.
Drone attacks in northwest Pakistan have been intensified since the double agent suicide bomber killed seven CIA employees at a U.S. base in Afghanistan on Dec. 30, the second deadliest attack in the agency’s history.
Even if sustained over a long period, the drones can only produce limited results — perhaps holding up suicide bombings for a few weeks — since militant leaders are unlikely to be killed in quick succession, analysts say.
In August 2009, a drone strike killed Pakistan Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, who united several groups to form the umbrella Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), or Taliban Movement of Pakistan. But the Taliban have managed to hit back with bombs that have killed hundreds. And Hakimullah’s deputy, Wali-ur-Rehman, is waiting in the wings if Hakimullah is killed.
The problem for the United States and its allies is the over-reliance on the drones to fight the Taliban, and the lack of ground intelligence.
CIA recruitment of agents is tedious and risky since it requires winning over people in a region of tightly knit family and tribal ties. Anyone tempted by cash risks execution if caught by the Taliban or al Qaeda. And intelligence is often sketchy.
That’s why the CIA must rely on Pakistani intelligence to provide targets to the virtual pilots who use computers halfway across the world to fly the $4.5 million drones into battle. That coordination may have put the al Qaeda and Taliban on the defensive in areas of northwest Pakistan. But Pakistan is unlikely to hand over the intelligence Washington wants most of all — whereabouts of leaders of Afghan Taliban groups who attack U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Those coordinates will be hard to come by because those groups are some of Pakistan’s most strategic regional assets.
Pakistani officials complain in public that the drones violate the country’s sovereignty and have said intensified strikes could hurt relations between the long-standing allies.
U.S. officials privately say the attacks are carried out under an agreement with Islamabad that allows Pakistani leaders to decry the attacks in public.
Islamabad may be too weak to openly back drone operations, fearing it would inflame anti-American sentiment, said retired Pakistan army general Talat Masood.
“The government does not have that courage or that confidence,” he said.