Analysis: US air campaign in Pakistan heats up


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; the second report was published on Oct. 1, 2009. One new chart, “Number of Strikes, Per Month,” has been added.

The US air campaign in Pakistan’s tribal areas remains the cornerstone of the effort to root out and decapitate the senior leadership of al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other allied terror groups, and to disrupt both al Qaeda’s global and local operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

As expected, in 2009 the US well exceeded the number of attacks in 2008, with 53 compared to 36. And with two strikes in the first four days of 2010, one can expect the intensity of the campaign this year to equal or exceed last year’s pace.

Although 16 senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders have been killed since the air campaign heated up in 2008, the terror groups remain a force in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The US has been compelled to surge forces in Afghanistan and revamp its strategy there, while the Pakistani military has been forced to launch military operations in Swat and South Waziristan. Despite some tactical victories by the Pakistani military in Pakistan, the Taliban and its allies are able to carry out suicide attacks and complex assaults on secure military and government targets with regularity.

Al Qaeda’s external operations network, which is assigned to carrying out attacks outside Afghanistan and Pakistan, has been a prime target of US airstrikes; three external operations chiefs have been killed since May 2008.

The US air campaign highlights the Pakistani government’s inability to control its own territory and prevent it from becoming a safe haven for al Qaeda, the Taliban, and a host of South Asian jihadi terror groups. The US is forced to conduct airstrikes in territories claimed by a nuclear power that is touted as an ally in the Long War.

Frequency of US strikes in 2009 outpaced 2008

The US has maintained the pressure on al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan’s tribal areas since August 2008. 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, which killed Taliban commander Nek Mohammed, until the end of 2009, there have been 99 US strikes inside Pakistan. There also have been two strikes so far this year.

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”]

There was a 47 percent increase in attacks from 2008 to 2009. In 2009, the number of US strikes exceeded the prior five years combined; there were 46 recorded strikes in Pakistan from 2004-2008, compared to 53 strikes in 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 also increased slightly during 2009. Using low-end estimates of casualties (including Taliban, al Qaeda, and civilian), the airstrikes in 2009 resulted in 506 killed. In 2008, there were 317 deaths reported. [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 slight rise in the average number of people killed per attack. In 2009, the average casualty rate was 9.65 killed per strike, compared to 8.81 in 2008.

Civilian casualties continue to decrease in 2009

Despite the sharp increase in both the frequency and total number of casualties resulting from Predator strikes since mid-2008, civilian casualties have remained relatively 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 2009. [see chart 4, “Casualties from Predator strikes inside Pakistan: Civilian vs. Taliban/Al Qaeda”]

Considering that drone strikes have resulted in 985 total casualties during that same time period, our numbers show that only 9.5 percent of the casualties reported have been identified as civilians. And the incidence of civilian casualties appears to be trending downward; during 2009, only 8.5 percent of the reported casualties were 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

As it has in the past, the US air campaign in Pakistan has continued to focus almost exclusively on the tribal agencies of North and South Waziristan. The total number of strikes in North Waziristan has surpassed the total number of strikes in South Waziristan for the first time. Of the total of 101 strikes in Pakistan through 2010, 91 strikes, or 90 percent, have struck targets in North Waziristan (48 strikes) and South Waziristan (43 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 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”]

The tribal areas run by the Haqqani Network have become the primary focus of US operations. Twenty-five percent of the attacks (25 attacks total) have taken place in the tribal areas run by the Haqqani Network. Ten of the last 15 strikes in 2009 took place in Haqqani Network territory.

The next hardest-hit group is the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, in the Mehsud tribal areas. Twenty-one strikes (21 percent) have taken place there since the campaign began in 2004. Since Baitullah Mehsud’s death during a strike 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, which stretches into the tribal areas and the greater northwest. Attacks there tapered off dramatically with Baitullah’s death and the onset of a Pakistani military operation in October.

The territories of South Waziristan Taliban chieftain Mullah Nazir have been hit 20 times (20 percent). North Waziristan leaders Abu Kasha al Iraqi (13 strikes) and Hafiz Gul Bahadar (six strikes) round out the list of the top five targeted commanders. In all, nearly 79 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 15 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 (Zuhaib al Zahib, Saleh al Somali, Najmuddin Jalolov, Mustafa al Jaziri, Tahir Yuldashev, 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 ]

The highest number of senior and mid-level al Qaeda and Taliban leaders killed by airstrikes is found in territories controlled by Mullah Nazir (26 percent). 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”]

Abu Kasha al Iraqi continues to have a disproportionate number of senior leaders killed in his territories; while his strongholds have been hit only 13 times, eight high-value targets (23 percent) have been killed there. The same goes for Bajaur’s Faqir Mohammad: two senior leaders 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 there. Baitullah Mehsud’s territory was hit 21 times, but only eight HVTs were killed there. The Haqqani Network, which has been hit the hardest, has yielded only seven HVTs killed.

Also, the US thought it killed Ilyas Kashmiri, the operations commander of the Harakat-ul-Jihad-Islami and al Qaeda’s Brigade 313. But Kashmiri later resurfaced and conducted an interview with the press.

Purpose of strikes

Much of the media’s reporting on the air campaign continues to focus on the deaths of senior al Qaeda leaders. But 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, since May 14, 2008, the US has killed three of the leaders of al Qaeda’s external operations branch: Abu Sulayman Jazairi, Osama al Kini, and Saleh al Somali.

Another major objective has been to disrupt the Taliban and al Qaeda’s 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. The Haqqani Network, for instance, is the most heavily targeted group because it both conducts operations in Afghanistan and harbors al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan. 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. Also, the US killed Zuhaib al Zahib, a senior commander in the Lashkar al Zil, al Qaeda’s Shadow Army, during a strike in December 2009. The Lashkar al Zil is al Qaeda’s military unit that partners with the Taliban on both sides of the border.

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. Several of Baitullah’s deputies have also been killed this past year. The US has an interest in preventing nuclear Pakistan from becoming a failed state and also needs to keep its supply lines open through Pakistan and into Afghanistan. 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:

Zuhaib al Zahib

A commander in the Lashkar al Zil, al Qaeda’s Shadow Army.

Date killed: December 17, 2009

Saleh al Somali

The leader of al Qaeda’s external network.

Date killed: December 8, 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

Tahir Yuldashev

The leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

Date killed: August 27, 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

A 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 explosives 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

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  • Setrak says:

    A good analysis, thank you. Looking into the current year, slightly off-topic, but I was wondering if you heard anything new about the January 3rd drone strike in the wake of the AFP source claiming someone “important” might have been present?

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Setrak, I do not have any further information on who may have been there. This isn’t all that uncommon in these reports.

  • Thanos says:

    Bill great summary of the year and excellent analysis, I appreciate your work and don’t feel the need to read Pakistani papers nightly to see what’s really going on since you have upped the quota of reports from there.

  • TimSln says:

    Another great piece of analysis. I am sure major media organizations will also be citing this summary report.

  • rhinoplasty says:

    It is very well written. I hope you keep us informed.
    I am very glad that there are people like you.

  • Charles Phillips says:

    One critical measure (that may be tough to get details on) is – how many operational UAVs have we had, that could launch missles? Certainly the number of strikes has been going up and a related, interesting, number would be how many available we have. We had few strikes when we had few Predators!
    Charles Phillips
    LtCol, USAF Retired


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