Obama administration officials have been proud of the fact that largely because of better intelligence, unmanned Predator drone strikes against Taliban and al Qaeda forces in Pakistan have been more successful in the first eight months of President Obama’s presidency than in the previous two years combined.
Sources say this success is largely because of better intelligence, stemming from greater cooperation by the Pakistani government and a stronger U.S. counter-insurgency program on the other side of the border in Afghanistan.
That added pressure creates the conditions for better intelligence on the ground as to where Taliban and al Qaeda forces are, sources say.
“They’re squeezed,” a Pentagon source says of individuals on the border region. “And when people are squeezed, they talk.”
But military officials who support Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s proposal for a larger counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan are concerned that some in the White House interpret this success as a reason to focus entirely on counterterrorism using drones.
Skeptics of the McChrystal plan in the White House, including Vice President Biden (and even President Obama, to a degree), are considering a shift in focus to counter-terrorism – less nation-building in Afghanistan and concern for protecting Afghans, more targeting of al Qaeda and allies in the Taliban.
Military sources worry that the success of the predator strikes will be seen as “happening in a vacuum,” with insufficient credit given to the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.
An unofficial analysis of U.S. airstrikes in Pakistan through September 2009 by the reputable website LongWarJournal, based on the publicly available data, indicates that 404 Taliban/al Qaeda were killed by Predator strikes in 2009, with 43 civilians killed.
In 2008, Predators killed 286 Taliban/al AQaeda, with 31 civilian killed. In 2007, 73 Taliban/al Qaeda were killed.
The Pentagon would not comment on the study. Bill Roggio, editor of The Long War Journal, says the information comes from press reports including local Pakistani newspapers — Dawn, Daily Times, Geo News, as well as wire services such as AFP, Reuters, and AP.
The study noted that “more than one in three of the strikes have killed a High Value Target (HVT). An overwhelming number of strikes – nearly 90 percent – have taken place against al Qaeda and Taliban targets in North and South Waziristan. Notably, a large percentage of the high value targets killed were killed in a tribal region operated by a Taliban leader whom the Pakistani military and government considers an ally.”
As the number of strikes has markedly increased, the average casualty rate has increased as well – from 10.64 killed per strike, compared to 8.81 in 2008.
Eight high-value targets were killed in 2008: Abdullah Azzam al Saudi, Abu Zubair al Masri, Abu Jihad al Masri, Khalid Habib, Abu Haris, Abu Khabab al Masri, Abu Sulayman Jazairi, and Abu Laith al Libi.
So far in 2009, six high value targets have been killed: Ilyas Kashmiri, Najmuddin Jalolov, Mustafa al Jaziri, Baitullah Mehsud, Osama al Kini, and Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan.