Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the tribal areas. Map from PBS’ Frontline. Click to view.
The US military, with the possible cooperation of the Afghan military, may have conducted a special operations air assault across the border into Taliban-controlled South Waziristan on Wednesday, according to unconfirmed reports from Pakistan.
The initial report from a Geo TV correspondent indicated the casualties were taken after US helicopters launched missiles at three homes in the Barmal area of Angorada late at night.
The report later changed when the correspondent claimed the helicopters landed and troops dismounted, who then began searching homes. One witness told The Associated Press that “American and Afghan soldiers starting firing” on one family outside of their home. Soldiers then entered the home and others, and killed 15 people, including women and children. The raid was reported to have occurred in the village of Musa Nikow.
The Pakistani military confirmed an attack occurred in the region, AP reported but did not provide details. Two anonymous Pakistani intelligence officials said the attack occurred and claimed 19 were killed. The US military in Afghanistan said its forces were not involved, and the US embassy in Pakistan did not comment.
A rare raid
The US military command in Afghanistan can plausibly deny its forces were involved in such a raid, as the operation have been carried out by Special Forces teams. Task Force 88, the hunter-killer teams assigned to take down al Qaeda and the Taliban’s command structure, does not report to the conventional command in Afghanistan.
A raid of this nature – the insertion of US special operations team inside Pakistani territory – is rare. This would be only the second reported raid of this nature since 2006. Nearly every other attack was conducted by unmanned US Predator aircraft or missile strikes from Afghanistan.
US special operation teams raided an al Qaeda camp in Danda Saidgai in North Waziristan in March 2006. The camp was run by the Black Guard, the al Qaeda elite praetorian guard for Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri, and other senior al Qaeda leaders.
The air assault resulted in the death of Imam Asad and several dozen members of the Black Guard. In addition to being the camp commander, Asad was a senior Chechen al Qaeda commander and associate of Shamil Basayev, the Chechen al Qaeda leader killed by Russian security forces in July 2006.
The insertion of US soldiers inside Pakistan is a risky venture. If this raid indeed occurred US intelligence must have believed that a senior-most al Qaeda or Taliban leader or leaders were present.
If confirmed the assault in South Waziristan would be the fourth cross-border attack since Aug. 20 and the 10th confirmed attack this year. Only 10 such strikes were recorded in 2006 and 2007 combined.
Four safe houses have been hit in South Waziristan, three have been hit in North Waziristan, and two have been targeted in Bajaur this year.
Three senior al Qaeda operatives have been killed in this year’s strikes. Two Canadians of Arab origin were killed in a strike in strike in South Waziristan last weekend.
Abu Khabab al Masri, al Qaeda’s bomb expert and weapons of mass destruction chief, was killed South Waziristan on July 28. Abu Sulayman Jazairi, al Qaeda’s external operations chief, was killed in Bajaur on May 14. Abu Laith al Libi, a senior commander in Afghanistan and the leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, was killed in North Waziristan on Jan. 28.
While the strikes have disrupted al Qaeda’s senior leadership, they have done little to disrupt the growth of al Qaeda and the Taliban in northwestern Pakistan.
The Taliban, al Qaeda, and allied terrorist groups have established 157 training camps and more than 400 support locations in the tribal areas and the Northwest Frontier Province, US intelligence officials have told The Long War Journal.
The Taliban has organized some of its fighters into military formations. Al Qaeda has reformed the notorious 055 Brigade, the Arab legion of al Qaeda fighters that was destroyed during the initial US assault in Afghanistan in late 2001. Additional al Qaeda brigades have been formed, intelligence officials informed The Long War Journal.
Foreign al Qaeda fighters have flocked to the Pakistani border regions. On July 23, Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani and his cabinet were told that more than 8,000 foreign fighters were operating in the tribal areas.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.