US Predators killed seven Taliban fighters in Pakistan’s Khyber tribal agency today. The strike is the first outside of North Waziristan since late September.
Unmanned Predator strike aircraft, or the more deadly Reapers, fired missiles at a vehicle traveling in the Tirah Valley in Khyber, according to AFP. The seven Taliban fighters who were killed were said to be from South Waziristan and Swat. No senior al Qaeda or Taliban leaders have been reported killed in the strike.
Today’s strike is just the second in Khyber since the US began its air campaign in 2004. On May 15, 2010, Predators fired at truckloads of jihadists in the Tirah Valley, killing 15 fighters.
Khyber agency is a terrorist haven
Khyber has become a hub of Taliban and al Qaeda activity since the Pakistani military launched an operation in the Mehsud tribal areas in South Waziristan in October 2009. Taliban forces have relocated to the Bara and Jamrud regions and the Tirah Valley in the Khyber agency [see LWJ report, Taliban escape South Waziristan operation].
Tariq Afridi, a powerful Taliban commander based in Darra Adam Khel, has taken control of Taliban operations in Khyber. The Taliban and Lashkar-e-Islam, a local Taliban ally commanded by Mangal Bagh, have gained power in Khyber despite a series of Pakistani military operations that began in the summer of 2007 which were supposedly designed to relieve Taliban pressure on neighboring Peshawar. A total of five military offensives have failed to dislodge the terror groups.
Both the Taliban and the Lashkar-e-Islam are known to operate bases and training camps in the Tirah Valley as well as in Bara and Jamrud. These safe havens in Khyber enable these terror groups to launch attacks inside Pakistan as well across the border in Nangarhar province in Afghanistan. In November 2008, the US military attacked Taliban forces in the Tirah Valley after they retreated across the border from Nangarhar in Afghanistan. US strike aircraft and artillery killed seven Taliban fighters during the hot pursuit.
The Khyber Pass is NATO’s main conduit for supplies into Afghanistan; an estimated 70 percent of NATO’s supplies move through this strategic crossing point. Between September 2007 and April 2008, the Khyber Pass was shut down seven times due to Taliban attacks.
The Predator strikes, by the numbers
The pace of the Predator strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas has slowed over the past two weeks. Today’s strike is just the fourth US attack in Pakistan this month.
The pace of the strikes from the beginning of September up to the end of November was unprecedented since the US began the air campaign in Pakistan in 2004. September’s record number of 21 strikes was followed by 16 strikes in October and 14 more in November. The previous monthly high was 11 strikes in January 2010, after the Taliban and al Qaeda executed a successful suicide attack at Combat Outpost Chapman that targeted CIA personnel who were active in gathering intelligence for the Predator campaign in Pakistan. In the bombing at COP Chapman, seven CIA officials and a Jordanian intelligence officer were killed.
The US has carried out 109 attacks inside Pakistan this year, more than doubling last year’s number of strikes. In late August, the US exceeded last year’s strike total of 53 with a strike in Kurram. In 2008, the US carried out a total of 36 strikes inside Pakistan. [For up-to-date charts on the US air campaign in Pakistan, see LWJ Special Report, Charting the data for US airstrikes in Pakistan, 2004 – 2010.]
This year the strikes have been confined almost exclusively to North Waziristan. All but 10 of this year’s 109 strikes have taken place in that tribal agency. Of the 10 strikes that have occurred outside of North Waziristan, seven took place in South Waziristan, two occurred in Khyber, and one took place in Kurram.
The last strike that occurred outside of North Waziristan was on Sept. 28, when four “militants” were killed on a strike on a compound in the village of Zeba near Wana in South Waziristan.
Since Sept. 1, the US has ramped up airstrikes against the terror groups in North Waziristan, with 52 strikes in the tribal agency. Many of the strikes targeted cells run by the Islamic Jihad Group, which have been plotting to conduct Mumbai-styled terror assaults in Europe. A Sept. 8 strike killed an IJU commander known as Qureshi, who specialized in training Germans to conduct attacks in their home country.
The US campaign in northwestern Pakistan has targeted top al Qaeda leaders, al Qaeda’s external operations network, and Taliban leaders and fighters who threaten both the Afghan and Pakistani states as well as support al Qaeda’s external operations. [For a list of al Qaeda and Taliban leaders killed in the US air campaign in Pakistan, see LWJ Special Report, Senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders killed in US airstrikes in Pakistan, 2004 – 2010.]
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