Unmanned US Predator or Reaper strike aircraft killed 13 “militants” in the Makeen area of Pakistan’s Taliban-controlled tribal agency of South Waziristan today. The strikes broke a two-week-long lull in US attacks in the tribal areas.
The CIA-operated drones fired a pair of missiles at a vehicle and a home in the town of Makeen in South Waziristan, according to Dawn News, killing “at least” 13 people. Pakistani officials said that 12 “militants” were killed in the strike, according to The Associated Press.
Makeen is an area under the control of Hakeemullah Mehsud, the leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, who is closely allied to al Qaeda. The US has struck targets in Makeen four other times in 2008 and 2009. One strike in June 2009 killed Khwaz Ali Mehsud, a top aide to Baitullah Mehsud, the former leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, who also was killed in a drone strike in August 2009 in nearby Ladha.
In a controversial follow-up strike at the funeral for Khwaz Ali in Makeen, US drones killed 83 Pakistanis, including 30 “militants.” Senior terrorist leaders including Haqqani Network commander Mullah Sangeen Zadran, and Baitullah and his deputy Qari Hussain Mehsud, were thought to be attending the funeral.
The exact target of today’s strike was not disclosed. No senior al Qaeda or Taliban commanders have been reported killed.
US strikes in Pakistan in 2012
Today’s strike is the first in Pakistan’s tribal areas in 14 days, and just the eighth this year. It is just the first in South Waziristan. The other seven strikes took place in North Waziristan; six of those strikes have taken place in or around Miramshah in North Waziristan, a stronghold of the Haqqani Network.
The program has been scaled down from its peak in 2010, when the US conducted 117 strikes. In 2011, the US carried out just 64 strikes in Pakistan’s border regions. With just 8 strikes in the first 10 weeks of 2012, the US is on a pace to carry out just 42 strikes in Pakistan this year.
The first strike this year took place on Jan. 11; it was the first by the US in Pakistan in 55 days. The previous strike took place on Nov. 16, 2011. The pause was the longest since the program was ramped up at the end of July 2008 [see LWJ report, US drone strikes in Pakistan on longest pause since 2008, from Dec. 19, 2011].
The program was put on hold from the end of November to the second week in January, following a clash between US forces and Pakistani Frontier Corps troops on the border of the Afghan province of Kunar and the Pakistani tribal area of Mohmand on Nov. 25-26. The US troops struck in Pakistan after taking mortar and machine gun fire on the Afghan side of the border from Pakistani troops. Twenty-four Pakistani Frontier Corps troops were killed.
The clash led to Pakistan’s closure of the border crossings in Chaman and Khyber to NATO supply columns destined for Afghanistan; the supply lines remain closed to this day. In the aftermath of the Mohmand incident, Pakistan also threatened to shoot down US drones flying in Pakistani airspace, and ejected US drones and personnel from the Shamsi Airbase in Baluchistan.
US officials told The Long War Journal on Dec. 12, 2011 that the program had been put “on hold” due to tensions over the Mohmand incident, but that the drones would strike again if a high value terrorist target that could not be ignored was spotted.
The Jan. 11 strike killed Aslam Awan, a deputy to the leader of al Qaeda’s external operations network. Awan was a Pakistani citizen from Abbottabad, the same town where Osama bin Laden was killed by US forces in a cross-border raid in May 2011. Awan is the most senior al Qaeda leader killed in a drone strike since mid-October, when Abu Miqdad al Masri, a member of al Qaeda’s Shura Majlis who also was involved in al Qaeda’s external operations, was killed. [For a list of senior terrorist leaders and operatives killed in drone strikes, see LWJ report, Senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders killed in US airstrikes in Pakistan, 2004 – 2012.]
Hakeemullah Mehsud, the leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, was also rumored to have been killed in the Jan. 11 strike. His death has not been confirmed, however, and the Pakistani Taliban have denied he was killed.
The last strike took place on Feb. 8 in Miramshah’s bazaar. Badr Mansoor, a senior Taliban and al Qaeda leader, was killed in the strike. Mansoor ran training camps in the area and sent fighters to battle NATO and Afghan forces across the border, and linked up members of the Harakat-ul-Mujahideen with al Qaeda to fight in Afghanistan.
Despite the US airstrikes, al Qaeda operatives claim they are still capable of conducting training and operations in the area. Abu Zubaydah al Lubnani, a Lebanese member of al Qaeda who operates along the Afghan-Pakistani border, has said that while the drones have “delayed some operations or even stopped them,” the terror group is still functioning in the region.
“I want here to confirm that Qaedat al-Jihad is still standing in Khorasan, solid and strong, despite what hit it, and it is still producing operations and it doesn’t know the path of despair…,” Lubnani said in statement that was recently released on jihadist forums. The statement was translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.