A CIA drone strike killed the wife of Pakistan's most wanted man today, according to local intelligence and military officials, the latest attack in an intensifying campaign against Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud.
The missile destroyed the house of Mehsud's second father-in-law, Akramud Din, around 1:00am, the intelligence officials said. At least three people were killed, including one woman. The Taliban denied that Mehsud's second wife was in the house at the time of the attack, though they did confirm that one woman was killed.
Military and diplomatic officials initially said that Mehsud himself might have been killed in the attack. Those reports, which residents of the area say are untrue, suggested that the target was likely Mehsud himself.
The strike was at least the 29th by an unmanned American drone this year, according to an ABC News tally. Nine of the last 10 drone strikes - since June 23 - have targeted Baitullah Mehsud and his network, which is based in South Waziristan. Makeen, where today's strike took place, is Mehsud's birthplace and a town he is said to occasionally visit and rarely, if ever, spend the night.
Publicly, Pakistani officials say the attacks are like kryptonite to their fragile government, convincing Pakistanis that the war against the Taliban is less their own than the United States'.
They also worry that since the strike killed members of Mehsud's family, the relative peace that Pakistan has enjoyed in the last two months will be shattered by suicide attacks launched in revenge for the attack.
Abdul Basit, the foreign office spokesman, told reporters today that "collateral damage" from the strikes could hurt Pakistan's ability to fight the war on terror. "Our position has been very clear: that drone attacks are a violation of Pakistani sovereignty, and differences exist between us and the Americans on this issue," he said.
But privately, Pakistani officials admit the drone attacks have helped, so long as they are accurate and do not kill any civilians. U.S. officials claim the attacks have killed at least 10 members of a constantly updated list of 20 top al Qaeda leaders, and that they have also seriously disrupted Mehsud's and the Taliban's networks.
The strike comes as the Pakistani Air Force launches almost daily attacks against Mehsud using fighter jets, described as an attempt to "soften" the area before a ground invasion. The army has also cut off many of the exit routes from Mehsud's areas in South Waziristan, residents of the tribal area say.
But the promised ground invasion has not materialized, and Pakistani military officials hint that there are attempts to avoid a full scale incursion, an especially difficult task against an entrenched enemy in one of the world's least hospitable terrains.
Indeed, U.S. officials, after initially pressuring the Pakistanis to go into Waziristan, have recently put more emphasis on the military finishing a separate operation. In Swat, a picturesque valley hundreds of miles to the north of Waziristan, more than 20,000 soldiers are still battling small skirmishes with the Taliban as hundreds of thousands of residents stream back to their homes.
"All signals at the moment is that the South Waziristan operation is going to be done via remote control, with air power, without a ground force" says Samina Ahmed, the Pakistan country director of the International Crisis Group.
For their part, residents from the area say the Taliban have destroyed their way of life, but they do not trust a military invasion. They question some of the targets hit by the Air Force campaign and point out that twice in the past, the army has failed to complete operations against Mehsud, opting instead for unwritten peace deals.
Thousands of people from South Waziristan, including those belonging to Mehsud's larger tribe, have fled the Taliban and the air operation in recent months. A group of about 40 of them visited Islamabad this week, asking the government for assistance.
"We are being arrested and tortured and beheaded," Noor Khan Mehsud, the leader of the Mehsud jirga, or tribal meeting, told ABC News during his visit. "We have no place to live. The government offers no protection to people like us."
His willingness to criticize the Taliban and the government during an on camera interview is rare, and he says it is quite dangerous to do so. Just a few weeks ago, he said, after two clerics had spoken against the Taliban, they were kidnapped. Their desecrated bodies were discovered by the side of the road.
While members of the jirga said they doubted whether the army could bring peace, Noor Khan Mehsud suggested that if the army could once and for all defeat the Taliban, his tribe would support it.
"If the army feels that they can bring about peace then we welcome them to come and do their job," he said. "We will only be too happy to have someone that would solve the problem."
Baitullah Mehsud has been blamed for many of the most notorious terrorist attacks in Pakistan in the last two years, most notably the Dec. 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto.
Mehsud's second father-in-law, Akramud Din, who survived the attack on his house today, has become important to Mehsud in the last two to three years, analysts say. He was one of the chief mediators between Mehsud and the military when the two sides made agreements not to attack each other.
U.S. officials believe Mehsud is the strongest commander in the region and has more money than any other network, including al Qaeda.
His camps include not only fighters from the local tribal areas but militants from jihadi organizations based in Punjab, near the Indian border, as well.
Pakistani officials say that nexus has helped make Mehsud and his allies more dangerous than ever.
"We would be happy if we could kill him," says a U.S. official.