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A U.S. drone struck inside Pakistan today, the latest in a record number of such attacks this month. U.S. military sources tell NPR that the drone strikes are part of an effort to address an intractable problem: How to deal with insurgents who battle U.S. troops in Afghanistan, then disappear into Pakistan.
NPR's national security correspondent Rachel Martin reports.
RACHEL MARTIN: Talk to U.S. government officials and you hear the war in Afghanistan sometimes described as a big game of Whack-a-Mole. It goes like this: The U.S. military cracks down on insurgent groups in Afghanistan, maybe taking out some key members, but the survivors flee to safe havens across the border in Pakistan. They regroup and pop up again.
U.S. officials say winning the war in Afghanistan means dealing with those safe havens in Pakistan, and that means ramping up drone strikes.
Mr. AHMED RASHID (Journalist, Pakistan): It has been extraordinary. I mean, we've had more than 70 drone attacks this year, which is already more than the whole of 2009.
MARTIN: Thats Ahmed Rashid. He's a Pakistani journalist who's written extensively about the Taliban. Those drone strikes he's talking about have increased to record levels in the past month, at least 20 in September alone.
There are several reasons. Among them, an effort to disrupt a potential terrorist plot against Europe; an ongoing campaign by the CIA to take out key al-Qaida leaders. And one more reason: There are now signs that the U.S. military in Afghanistan is working with the CIA to make the safe havens less safe for the Taliban.
A senior adviser to General David Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, says that Petraeus himself requested two recent drone strikes, targeting members of the Haqqani network, a strong element of the insurgency.
Dr. ANTHONY CORDESMAN (Center for Strategic and International Studies): To which we have is a very coordinated strategy to try to attack networks.
MARTIN: Anthony Cordesman is with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He says the military and the CIA are working together.
Dr. CORDESMAN: What you see is an exchange of data, an exchange of targeting, requests that move back and forth. This is done with a kind of integrated intelligence effort which is tied to priorities. Some of these priorities come from the highest command levels.
MARTIN: Like General Petraeus. U.S. officials say this kind of cooperation between the military and the CIA should be expected in a counterinsurgency campaign that involves operations in two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan. And the pressure is on both sides of the border.
One senior U.S. defense officials says on any given night in Afghanistan, there are up to 20 U.S. Special Forces raids. Those operations push insurgents across the border. And the U.S. follows them, either with CIA drone strikes or cross-border attacks. Just this week, U.S. helicopters launched an attack into Pakistan that killed roughly 30 people.
Ahmed Rashid says the ramped up operations inside Pakistani territory have several effects. First, they've created a sense of distrust among insurgent groups operating in Pakistan.
Mr. RASHID: The Haqqani network, the Pakistani Taliban have been killing, executing so many local Pashtuns who they call spies for the Americans.
MARTIN: Second, Rashid says, the drone strikes have got some insurgent leaders on the run. But that poses yet another challenge.
Mr. RASHID: Displacement has probably made it more difficult to track them down exactly where they are now. Because I mean, once they leave the tribal areas, then there'll be much less intelligence about if these leaders are hiding in any of the Pakistani towns or cities outside that belt.
MARTIN: So the U.S. pushes insurgents from Afghanistan into the safe havens. Then the U.S. attacks the safe havens and some insurgents flee to big cities in Pakistan, where they may be even harder to find. And the chase continues.
A senior U.S. defense official put it this way: In a counterinsurgency, if you're fighting a group that's protected by a safe haven, it's very hard to win.
Rachel Martin, NPR News, Washington.
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