Analysis: A look at US airstrikes in Pakistan through September 2009


Click image to view the data related to the US air campaign in Pakistan.

Note: This is an updated analysis of the US air campaign in Pakistan. The first look at the data was published on July 21, 2009. Two new charts, “Casualties from Predator strikes inside Pakistan: Civilian vs. Taliban/Al Qaeda,” and “Number of HVTs killed in territories of various Taliban factions,” have been added.

In August and September of 2009, the US covert air campaign in Pakistan’s lawless, Taliban-controlled tribal agencies scored four high value al Qaeda and Taliban targets. The deaths of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud and three senior al Qaeda leaders have helped to fuel the push for increasing the role of strikes in Pakistan. The US is now urging Pakistan to take on the Quetta Shura, led by Mullah Omar, and other targets in Baluchistan, and has considered expanding the air campaign outside Pakistan’s tribal areas.

The US is also considering switching from a counterinsurgency-based strategy in Afghanistan, which focuses on securing the Afghan people and building up the government and military, to a counterterrorism-based strategy that focuses on covert raids and airstrikes against al Qaeda in Pakistan. This potential strategy shift is meeting resistance from circles within the US military and the intelligence communities, who while supportive of the present air campaign in Pakistan, warn that the tactic has limited use in dismantling al Qaeda and believe that such a strategy would destabilize Pakistan and lead to a Taliban takeover of much of Afghanistan.

As the debate over the way forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan continues, the US air campaign in Pakistan has not abated. The number of strikes this year has already exceeded the total from last year, and there is no sign of letting up.

A look at the publicly available data on the US air campaign in Pakistan shows a marked increase in the frequency in attacks since 2008. These attacks are also becoming increasingly lethal. A little more than one in three of the strikes have killed a High Value Target (HVT). An overwhelming number of strikes – nearly 90 percent – have taken place against al Qaeda and Taliban targets in North and South Waziristan. Notably, a large percentage of the high value targets killed were killed in a tribal region operated by a Taliban leader whom the Pakistani military and government consider an ally.

Frequency of US strikes continues to trend upward

The US has continued to keep the pressure on al Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal areas, and the attack tempo has remained high relative to the number of attacks carried out from June 2004 through July 2008. Since the first recorded strike in June of 2004 that killed Taliban commander Nek Mohammed, there have been 87 US strikes inside Pakistan. Seventy-six of these attacks have taken place since January 2008.

Beginning in August 2008, the US began stepping up strikes against Taliban and al Qaeda elements in the tribal agencies. There were 28 airstrikes in the tribal agencies between August and December 2008 – nearly three times the total number of airstrikes in the previous four years combined. There was one recorded strike in 2004, one in 2005, three in 2006, and five in 2007. [see Chart 1, “Number of US airstrikes inside Pakistan”]

So far this year, the US has already exceeded the total number of airstrikes carried out in all of 2008. There were 36 recorded strikes in 2008, compared to 42 strikes from Jan. 1 to Sept. 29, 2009. [see Chart 2, “Frequency of US strikes in Pakistan, 2008 vs. 2009”]

Lethality of strikes

The lethality of Predator strikes inside the tribal agencies has also continued to increase during 2009. Using low-end estimates of casualties (including Taliban, al Qaeda, and civilian) from US strikes inside Pakistan, we have determined that airstrikes resulted in 317 deaths during 2008. Already, the airstrikes in 2009 have surpassed that total, with 447 killed in 2009 as of Sept. 29, 2009. [see Chart 3, “Deaths in Pakistan from Predator strikes, 2008 vs. 2009”]

Another indicator of the increasing lethality of US airstrikes inside Pakistan is the rising average number killed per attack. So far in 2009, the average casualty rate has been 10.64 killed per strike, compared to 8.81 in 2008. The 2009 lethality average has dropped from the previous number calculated in July 2009, which was 11.77 deaths per strike.

Civilian casualties are low

Despite the sharp increase in both the frequency and total number of casualties resulting from Predator strikes since mid-2008, civilian casualties have remained very low. Naturally, it is difficult to determine the exact number of civilians killed in Predator strikes for many reasons – including intentional exaggeration by Taliban spokesmen, and vague accounts by Pakistani media sources which frequently report that a certain number of “people” were killed in a strike, but rarely offer a follow-up report identifying which victims were civilians and which were militants. However, it is possible to get a rough estimate of civilian casualties by adding up the number of civilians reported killed from the media accounts of each attack. According to this method, a total of 94 civilians were reported killed as a result of all strikes between 2006 and September 29, 2009. [see chart 4, “Casualties from Predator strikes inside Pakistan: Civilian vs. Taliban/Al Qaeda”]

Considering that drone strikes have resulted in 979 total casualties during that same time period, our numbers show that only 9.6% of the casualties reported have been identified as civilians. While our number is undoubtedly a low estimate, this extremely small percentage suggests that the accuracy and precision of these strikes have improved along with the increased pace of these strikes over the past few years.

Locations of strikes

The US air campaign in Pakistan has focused almost exclusively on the tribal agencies of North and South Waziristan. Of the total of 88 strikes in Pakistan, 78 strikes, or 88.6 percent, have struck targets in North Waziristan (36 strikes) and South Waziristan (42 strikes). This trend has only increased after the US branched out and struck several targets outside those two tribal agencies during the fall of 2008 and winter of 2009. Since the April 1, 2009 strike in Arakzai, all 30 of the subsequent strikes have been in North and South Waziristan. [see chart 5, “Location of airstrikes inside Pakistan, by district”]

The vast majority of the US attacks inside Pakistan have focused on areas under the control of five influential leaders. [see chart 6, “Number of airstrikes in territories of various Taliban factions”]

Twenty-three percent of the attacks (20 attacks total) took place in Baitullah Mehsud’s tribal areas. This number rose dramatically since the spring of 2008, when only 10 percent of the attacks hit in Baitullah’s tribal areas. This drastic increase reflects the US effort to kill Baitullah, who, as leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, remained closely allied with al Qaeda and sought to bring down the Pakistani state. Since Baitullah’s death in August of 2009, Waliur Rehman Mehsud has taken control of Baitullah’s territories in South Waziristan, and Hakeemullah Mehsud has taken command of the overall Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan.

The territories of South Waziristan Taliban chieftain Mullah Nazir were also hit 20 times (23 percent of the strikes). The Haqqani Network rounded out the top three, with 22 percent of the strikes (19 strikes total) taking place in their territories. North Waziristan leaders Abu Kasha al Iraqi (eight strikes) and Hafiz Gul Bahadar (five strikes) finish out the top five. In all, nearly 81 percent of the strikes targeted the territories of these five tribal leaders.

High Value Targets killed

Since January 2008, the US strikes in Pakistan have killed 13 senior al Qaeda leaders and one senior Taliban leader. Eight were killed in 2008 (Abdullah Azzam al Saudi, Abu Zubair al Masri, Abu Jihad al Masri, Khalid Habib, Abu Haris, Abu Khabab al Masri, Abu Sulayman Jazairi, and Abu Laith al Libi); and six were killed in 2009 (Ilyas Kashmiri, Najmuddin Jalolov, Mustafa al Jaziri, Baitullah Mehsud, Osama al Kini, and Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan). In addition, 16 mid-level al Qaeda and Taliban commanders and operatives have been killed since January 2008. [ see list of al Qaeda and Taliban leaders killed since 2004, below ]

Interestingly enough, just over 27 percent of the HVTs have been killed in strikes in territories controlled by Mullah Nazir. The Pakistani government and the military have held up Nazir as a “pro-government Taliban leader” after he feuded with Uzbek fighters from the Islamic Jihad Union. But Nazir has repeatedly professed his loyalty to Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. [see chart 7, “Number of HVTs killed in territories of various Taliban factions”]

The data also presents some interesting results on number of strikes versus number of HVTs killed. Some leaders’ territories have only hit only a handful of times, but those select strikes have clearly and effectively targeted HVTs. For example, even though there have only been eight strikes in Abu Kasha al Iraqi’s territory (9 percent of all strikes), five HVTs have been killed there (15 percent of total). The same goes for Bajaur’s Faqir Mohammad: two HVTs have been killed during the three strikes in his territories.

Conversely, a high number of strikes in a leader’s territory does not mean a higher percentage of HTVs killed. Baitullah Mehsud’s territory was hit 20 times (23 percent of total), but only six HVTs were killed (18 percent) – just one more than in Abu Kasha al Iraqi’s territory, which was hit far fewer times. This disparity most likely means that while the US will act to strike HVTs in other territories when given actionable intelligence, the large number of strikes in the territories of Baitullah Mehsud and the Haqqani Network were meant primarily to disrupt the operations of those groups and the al Qaeda operatives based there, and not just to kill HVTs.

Purpose of strikes

While much of the media’s reporting on the air campaign has focused on the deaths of senior al Qaeda leaders, the campaign has more than one objective. Certainly the US is targeting al Qaeda’s senior leadership in an effort to disrupt the overall command and control of the terror group, but the attacks are also aimed at hitting al Qaeda’s external operations network and disrupting the Taliban’s operations in both Afghanistan and in Pakistan.

First and foremost, the primary objective of the air campaign has been to disrupt al Qaeda’s external network and prevent the group from striking at the US and her allies. The campaign has targeted camps known to house foreigners as well as trainers and leaders for the network. Al Qaeda operatives known to have lived in the West and holding foreign passports have been killed in several Predator strikes. One such strike on an al Qaeda camp in South Waziristan on Aug. 30, 2008, killed two Canadian passport holders as they trained in the camp. Also, Abu Sulayman Jazairi, the former chief of al Qaeda’s external operations branch, was killed in a strike on May 14, 2008.

Another major objective has been to disrupt the Taliban operations in Afghanistan. The Taliban in Afghanistan receive significant support from within Pakistan. Taliban groups that are very active against Coalition forces in Afghanistan, such as the Haqqani Network, the Mehsud Taliban, and Mullah Nazir, have flourished in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas. The US has targeted both Taliban leaders and fighters during these strikes. Several large Taliban training camps that are known to train fighters for the Afghan front have been the targets of attack. For instance, a training camp in Kurram operated by an Afghan Taliban commander was hit on Feb. 16, 2009.

Along with targeting al Qaeda’s external operations network and the Taliban’s Afghan operations in Pakistan, the US has also targeted Pakistani Taliban commanders who threaten the stability of the Pakistani state. The US hunted Baitullah Mehsud for a year before killing him in a strike in early August of 2009. The US has an interest in preventing nuclear Pakistan from becoming a failed state and needs to keep its supply lines through Pakistan and into Afghanistan open. More than 70 percent of the US and NATO supplies travel through Pakistan’s northwest.

List of High Value Targets killed in Pakistan since 2004

Killed in 2009:

Ilyas Kashmiri

The operations commander of the Harakat-ul-Jihad-Islami and the operations chief of Brigade 313.

Date killed: September 14, 2009

Najmuddin Jalolov

The leader of the Islamic Jihad Group, a breakaway faction of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Najmuddin was closely allied with al Qaeda.

Date killed: September 14, 2009

Maulvi Ismail Khan

A military commander in the Haqqani Network.

Date killed: September 8, 2009

Mustafa al Jaziri

A senior military commander for al Qaeda who sits on al Qaeda’s military shura.

Date killed: September 7, 2009

Baitullah Mehsud

The overall leader of the movement of the Taliban in Pakistan.

Date killed: August 5, 2009

Kifayatullah Anikhel

A Taliban commander under Baitullah Mehsud.

Date killed: July 7, 2009

Mufti Noor Wali

Suicide bomber trainer for the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Date killed: July 3, 2009

Khwaz Ali Mehsud

A senior deputy to Baitullah Mehsud.

Date killed: June 23, 2009

Abdullah Hamas al Filistini

A senior al Qaeda trainer.

Date killed: April 1, 2009

Osama al Kini (aka Fahid Mohammed Ally Msalam)

Al Qaeda’s operations chief for Pakistan who was wanted for the 1998 bombings against the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Date killed: January 1, 2009

Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan

A senior aide to Osama al Kini who was wanted for the 1998 bombings against the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Date killed: January 1, 2009

Killed in 2008:

Abu Zubair al Masri

Served as an explosive expert for al Qaeda as well as a leader.

Date killed: November 21, 2008

Abdullah Azzam al Saudi

Served as liaison between al Qaeda and the Taliban operating in Pakistan’s northwest. Azzam facilitated al Qaeda’s external operations network. He also served as a recruiter and trainer for al Qaeda.

Date killed: November 19, 2008

Abu Jihad al Masri

The leader of the Egyptian Islamic Group and the chief of al Qaeda’s intelligence branch, and directed al Qaeda’s intelligence shura. He directed al Qaeda’s external operations in Egypt.

Date killed: October 31, 2008

Khalid Habib

The commander of the Lashkar al Zil or the Shadow Army, al Qaeda’s paramilitary forces in Pakistan’s northwest and Afghanistan.

Date killed: October 16, 2008

Abu al Hasan al Rimi

A senior al Qaeda operative.

Date killed: October 2008 – exact date unknown

Abu Ubaidah al Tunisi

An al Qaeda military commander who fought against the Russians in Afghanistan.

Date killed: September 17, 2008

Abu Musa

An al Qaeda operative from Saudi Arabia.

Date killed: September 8, 2008

Abu Qasim

An al Qaeda operative from Egypt.

Date killed: September 8, 2008

Abu Hamza

An explosives expert from Saudi Arabia who served as al Qaeda’s commander in Peshawar.

Date killed: September 8, 2008

Abu Haris

A senior al Qaeda military commander from Syria who led more than 250 Arab and Afghan fighters under the guise of the Jaish al Mahdi in Helmand province. He became al Qaeda’s operations chief in the tribal areas in 2008.

Date killed: September 8, 2008

Abu Wafa al Saudi

An al Qaeda commander and logistician.

Date killed: September 4, 2008

Abdul Rehman

A local Taliban commander in the Wana region in South Waziristan.

Date killed: August 13, 2008

Abu Khabab al Masri

The chief of al Qaeda’s weapons of mass destruction program and a master bomb maker.

Date killed: July 28, 2008

Abu Mohammad Ibrahim bin Abi al Faraj al Masri

A religious leader, close to Abu Khabab al Masri.

Date killed: July 28, 2008

Abdul Wahhab al Masri

A senior aide to Abu Khabab al Masri.

Date killed: July 28, 2008

Abu Islam al Masri

Aide to Abu Khabab al Masri.

Date killed: July 28, 2008

Abu Sulayman Jazairi

The chief of al Qaeda’s external network. Jazairi was a senior trainer, an explosives expert, and an operational commander tasked with planning attacks on the West.

Date killed: March 16, 2008

Dr. Arshad Waheed (aka Sheikh Moaz)

A mid-level al Qaeda leader.

Date killed: May 14, 2008

Abu Laith al Libi

Senior military commander in Afghanistan and the leader of the reformed Brigade 055 in al Qaeda’s paramilitary Shadow Army.

Date killed: January 29, 2008

Killed in 2007:

No senior al Qaeda or Taliban leaders or operatives were reported killed during the strikes in 2007.

Killed in 2006:

Liaquat Hussain

Second-in-command of the Bajaur TNSM.

Date killed: October 30, 2006

Imam Asad

Camp commander for the Black Guard, al Qaeda’s elite bodyguard for Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri. Asad was a Chechen with close links to Shamil Basayev.

Date killed: March 1, 2006

Killed in 2005:

Abu Hamza Rabia

Al Qaeda’s operational commander. He was involved with two assassination plots against Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

Date killed: December 1, 2005

Killed in 2004:

Nek Mohammed

A senior Taliban commander in South Waziristan who had links to Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar.

Date killed: June 18, 2004

Tags: ,



Islamic state



Al shabaab

Boko Haram