The US launched the first drone strike in Pakistan this year in an attack targeting fighters loyal to a Taliban commander who is favored by Pakistan’s government as well as its military and intelligence establishment.
The CIA-operated, remotely piloted Predators or Reapers launched an airstrike on a compound in the village of Wacha Basti in the Datta Khel area of North Waziristan earlier today, Dawn reported. Eight people, including an unidentified “high-value target,” are reported to have been killed in the strike.
The compound that was hit belongs “to an Uzbek commander of the Taliban’s Hafiz Gul Bahadar Group,” Dawn noted. Hafiz Gul Bahadar is the top Taliban commander for North Waziristan, and administers the jihadist haven of Datta Khel.
Some Pakistani news outlets are claiming that “outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) Commander Hafiz Gul Bahadar” is among those killed. His death has not been confirmed. The reports are questionable as Bahadar is neither “outlawed” nor a leader in the TTP, or Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan. Bahadar, while allied with the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, operates independently of the group’s leadership.
In fact, the Hafiz Gul Bahadar Group and other jihadist factions such as the Haqqani Network are considered by the Pakistani establishment to be “good” Taliban, as these groups do not advocate attacking the Pakistani state, even while sheltering and supporting jihadist groups that wage war on the government. The so-called good Taliban also support and wage jihad in Afghanistan and India. [See Threat Matrix reports, Pakistan condemns drone strike that targeted ‘good Taliban,’ and Good Taliban are not our problem, adviser to Pakistan’s prime minister says.]
The Datta Khel area in North Waziristan, where today’s drone strike took place, is a nexus of Taliban, Haqqani Network, and al Qaeda activity. In addition to the Hafiz Gul Bahadar Group, the Haqqani Network, al Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and other jihadist groups also operate there. Some of al Qaeda’s top leaders have been killed in drone strikes in Datta Khel, including Mustafa Abu Yazid, the group’s former general manager; Abdullah Said al Libi, the emir of the Lashkar-al-Zil; and Zuhaib al Zahibi, a top Lashkar-al-Zil general. [See LWJ report, ‘Foreign militants’ reported killed in latest US drone strike in Pakistan, for more details on Datta Khel and senior al Qaeda leaders killed there.]
The Pakistani military claimed in early September 2014 that it has “cleared” Datta Khel of jihadist groups during Operation Zarb-e-Azb, which began on June 15, 2014. But the operation targeted only the so-called “bad” Taliban, such as the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The Haqqani Network and the Hafiz Gul Bahadar Group were not targeted in the operation, despite Pakistani military claims to the contrary.
US has now launched eight drone strikes in Datta Khel since the Pakistani military claim, indicating that the area remains a jihadist haven. [See LWJ report, US drones strike in jihadist stronghold in North Waziristan.]
US strikes in Pakistan
Today’s covert operation in Datta Khel is the first strike reported in Pakistan this year. Last year the US launched 24 airstrikes inside Pakistan; 11 of those strikes took place in Datta Khel, and six more occurred in the Shawal Valley of North Waziristan, which is also an al Qaeda and jihadist hub in the tribal agency. The number of strikes has decreased since the program’s peak in 2010, when 117 attacks were recorded by The Long War Journal. [See LWJ report, Charting the data for US airstrikes in Pakistan, 2004 – 2015.]
In one of the more recent strikes in Datta Khel, on Dec. 8, 2014, the US is thought to have killed an al Qaeda commander known as Omar Farooq. [See LWJ reports, Al Qaeda commander reported killed in drone strike in Pakistan and Senior al Qaeda leader returns to Twitter, praises ‘martyrs’.]
The US continues to target and kill al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in Pakistan’s tribal areas despite previous claims by Obama administration officials that al Qaeda has been decimated and only two “core” al Qaeda leaders remain active. And al Qaeda remains active outside of Pakistan’s tribal areas in the provinces of Baluchistan, Punjab, and Sindh, where the US drones do not operate.