US missile toll rises in Pakistan border area
Riaz Khan, Peshawar
THREE US missile strikes, hours apart, have killed 18 people in a militant stronghold near the Afghan border in north-west Pakistan.
At least nine people were killed in the first strike on Saturday, when missiles destroyed a moving vehicle in the North Waziristan tribal region, Pakistani intelligence officials said yesterday.
Two hours later, drones fired more missiles that struck people who had gathered to retrieve the bodies, killing five. A third strike later that night again targeted a moving vehicle in North Waziristan, killing four, they said.
Advertisement: Story continues below The identities and nationalities of the 18 slain men were not immediately known, the officials said.
They spoke on condition of anonymity, as they were not authorised to speak to reporters.
Another 35 were killed in similar strikes on Monday and Tuesday.
A total of 118 such strikes, carried out by unmanned aircraft, were launched in 2010 in the north-west border region, killing up to 2100 people, most of them militants, according to the Washington policy think tank New America Foundation. Nearly all hit North Waziristan.
US authorities often target militants and their facilities in the region, a hideout for local and foreign insurgents who target US and NATO troops in neighbouring Afghanistan. The latest three strikes came a day after four missiles struck a convoy, killing eight suspected militants.
Pakistan’s government publicly protests against the airstrikes, saying they violate the country’s sovereignty and anger tribesmen whose support is needed to fend off extremists. But Islamabad is widely believed to secretly support the attacks and provide intelligence for at least some of them.
US officials rarely discuss the covert, CIA-run missile program. Privately, however, they say it is crucial and has killed several top militant leaders. They also say the drone-fired strikes are accurate and usually kill militants while limiting civilian deaths.
The Obama administration’s recent strategy review concluded that the key to success in the Afghan war is the elimination of havens inside Pakistan, where the Taliban plot and stage attacks on coalition troops in Afghanistan.
But General Ashfaq Kayani, the man many view as the most powerful in Pakistan, has resisted personal appeals from President Barack Obama, US military commanders and senior diplomats. General Kayani, as Pakistan’s army chief, has more direct say over the country’s security strategy than its president or prime minister.
Recent US intelligence estimates concluded he is unlikely to change his mind. Officials say General Kayani doesn’t trust American motivations and is hedging his bets in case the US strategy for Afghanistan fails.
The general is seen as personifying the problem posed by Pakistan: he views Afghanistan on a timeline stretching far beyond the US withdrawal, expected to begin this year.
Although the Obama administration sees the insurgents as an enemy to be defeated as quickly as possible, Pakistan has long regarded them as useful proxies in protecting its western flank from inroads by India, its historical adversary.
”Kayani wants to talk about the end state in south Asia,” said one of several Obama administration officials, while US generals ”want to talk about the next drone attacks”.
The US has praised the general for operations in 2009 and 2010 against domestic militants in the Swat Valley and in South Waziristan, and dramatically increased its military and economic assistance to Pakistan.
But it has grown frustrated that he has not launched a ground assault against Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda sanctuaries in North Waziristan.