Backfiring Predator

It apparently took 16 drone-missile attempts by the CIA before they got Pakistani insurgent leader Baitullah Meshud. His death on August 27 – he died along with his second wife in the attack in South Waziristan near the insurgent chief’s home village of Narkosa – was greeted with jubilation by U.S. and Pakistani officials. Although none of them detailed the earlier failed assassination efforts that killed hundreds of civilians, they were keen to point to Baitullah Mehsud’s death as a turning point in the war on terror in Pakistan.

The insurgency was now a snake without a head, or so the claim went. The CIA drone attack had left the Islamic militants in disarray, the officials maintained.

Events in Pakistan since late August have shown what a hollow accomplishment it was in taking out Baitullah Mehsud. The terror response from his Tehrik I Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its allies, including Al Qaeda, illustrates clearly what the limits are in policy results in killing top terror leaders.

Back in 2002 then Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz praised the tactic of using drone-missile attacks to vaporize the enemy leadership. Speaking on CNN after a CIA Reaper firing a Hellfire missile killed Al-Qaeda operative Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, Wolfowitz claimed such attacks not only got rid of dangerous people but disrupted the terror organizations, forcing them to change tactics and operations, making them less effective.

The same kind of talk was heard in August from Obama officials But since the assassination of Baitullah Mehsud, TTP and its allies have hardly drawn breath. Take October. One week saw three spectacular attacks – one on the World Food Programme office’s in Islamabad, another on a crowded market in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar that killed more than 50, and then a stunning finale with an assault on the headquarters of the Pakistani army in Rawalpindi leaving 20 dead.

Another October week and more blood-letting. Islamic militants attacked key police facilities in two Pakistani cities, killing at least 28 people as insurgents firing automatic rifles and carrying grenades stormed the headquarters of the Federal Investigation Agency and two police training centers in Lahore.

And on and on, Pakistan’s Islamic militants have shown that they can assault an array of different targets. In the wake of the August 27 drone attack, the TTP promoted senior lieutenant Hakeemullah Mehsud to take on its leadership and he has been successful in encouraging the various Islamic militant groups in Pakistan to coalesce more and to coordinate.

In short, the Hellfire missile that killed Baitullah Mehsud backfired.

Moral and legal disputes aside about the use of the drones and the targeted assassinations – and there are plenty of compelling arguments against this tactic none more convincing than that hundreds of innocent civilians are being killed in the process – the tactic is simply not working.

President Obama has come in for a lot of criticism for undertaking yet another review of policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan – his second review this year. Critics have been up in arms about his resistance to sending more troops to Afghanistan. But if the review involves identifying a political strategy and subduing the military approach to the conflict, then the time will have been well-spent.