Northwest Pakistan Sees Surge Of Drone Strikes

U.S. drone attacks along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border have ramped up in the past few weeks. Over the years, drone strikes were typically run by the CIA and targeted terrorist leaders with al Qaeda and other groups. The more recent attacks may indicate a new, more robust military strategy directed at the Taliban: a sign that drone strikes have been more fully integrated into the overall counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.

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RICHARD SMITH, host:

The Afghan elections are happening just as the U.S. military effort there is ramping up. The last of the 30,000 extra U.S. troops ordered in by President Barack Obama are now on the ground.�

That military push coincides with an apparent surge of drone strikes on the other side of the border, in Pakistan.�As NPR's Rachel Martin reports, the timing may be more than a coincidence.�

RACHEL MARTIN: Talking about U.S. drone strikes in northwest Pakistan is always tough - mainly because the U.S government doesn't publicly acknowledge the attacks and they're virtually impossible to independently verify. So people in the know end up describing the drone strikes vaguely, like this...

Mr. JOHN NAGL (Center for a New American Security): Irregular ways we're conducting this war against the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

MARTIN: That's John Nagl of the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

Now, according to The Long War Journal - an organization that tracks these kinds of strikes there have been 13 drone attacks in Pakistan in September alone, making it the most active month since the U.S. started hitting targets there in 2004.

John Nagl says that uptick may be linked to the heavier U.S. military footprint now in Afghanistan. More boots on the ground means more intelligence gathering, which leads to more targeting of insurgent leaders who may be on the other side of the border.�

Mr. NAGL: I think thats what were seeing. I think weve gathered some intelligence and are using that intelligence to multiply itself and to get deeper and deeper inside these insurgent networks and make life harder for them.

MARTIN: Making life harder means making it tough for the insurgents to carry out their operations. Because the more drone strikes keep taking out insurgent leaders, the more precautions they're likely to take.�

Mr. STEPHEN BIDDLE (Council on Foreign Relations): They never travel in the open. They never communicate. They never gather in large groups. They also cant carry out a military command function very effectively.

MARTIN: That's Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Mr. BIDDLE: So what youre trying to do is set up something of a dilemma for them in which if they want to actually run an insurgency with any effectiveness, theyve got to make themselves vulnerable to some degree.

MARTIN: The drone strikes over the past couple weeks have reportedly targeted the Haqqani Network, an insurgent group run by the Haqqani family in Afghanistan. They have ties to the Taliban and al-Qaida. One top U.S. military official described the push against the Haqqani Network as a, quote, "relentless pursuit." That can involve U.S. troops on the Afghan side of the border and drone strikes in Pakistan.�

Stephen Biddle says the drone strikes make it difficult for Taliban commanders who may want to drag the war on so long that the U.S. eventually gives up and leaves.

Mr. BIDDLE: In general, it produces a cost to waiting on the other side, because every month there's a certain probability that they're going to get caught by one of these airstrikes, and they dont know when.

MARTIN: So Biddle says the targeted insurgents have a choice - accept the threat of a drone attack and keep running their operations or lay low to avoid them. Either way, the strikes can throw insurgent groups off balance. Amos Guiora is a law professor at the University of Utah and an expert on drone attacks.

Professor AMOS GUIORA (University of Utah): Its obvious to them that there is someone amongst them whos a mole or is a turncoat against them. And that clearly rattles their cage. From the group's perspective, from the terrorist organizations perspective, not only has an operative been killed but it is an indication of penetration which suggests potential weakness.

MARTIN: It's impossible to measure the real impact of the recent drone attacks. But the timing and scope of the strikes, more than a dozen in the past two weeks, suggests that one hit can lead to another. Again, John Nagl.�

Mr. NAGL: Theres a burst of activity. People move. People talk. Things happen. Once you get that first corner lifted to see inside an insurgent cell, its much easier then to find the second and the third and the fourth and the network sort of lights up.

MARTIN: But U.S. officials have to assess whether the tactical rewards of conducting drone strikes outweigh the political risks. The strikes are criticized around the world as state sponsored assassinations. They sometimes kill innocent civilians and they stir up anti-American sentiment in Pakistan.�

All reasons why when it comes to drone strikes, it's easier for the U.S. to just not talk about them.�

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Washington.

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