U.S. drones attack region where Pakistan seeks allies

McClatchy NewspapersJune 18, 2009 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — As Pakistan pursues delicate negotiations before launching a major military operation in South Waziristan, the United States launched a drone strike Thursday that could offend a warlord the government here is trying to win over, analysts said.

The bombing exposed the divergent priorities of Washington and Islamabad. The United States strongly backs the Pakistani offensive announced Sunday against warlord Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban. Washington also wants to destroy the leadership of the Afghan Taliban and its Pakistani allies, however, some of whom are potential allies for the Pakistani government.

One such potential ally, who just came under attack, is warlord Maulvi Nazir, whom Pakistan is courting in hopes he'll stay out of the fight, according to a senior Pakistani security official who declined to be identified as he wasn't authorized to discuss the issue.

Mehsud is also seeking a pact with Nazir, however, in what officials and militants described as a fierce competition with the government.

Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal region is a center of militant activity for both sides of the border.

"We won't find out where he (Nazir) is until it comes to the time of fighting," Taufan Mehsud, a commander with a tribal militia led by Qari Zainuddin that's being raised to battle Baitullah Mehsud, told McClatchy. "He (Nazir) tells them (Baitullah Mehsud) that he's with them, and he tells us that he's with us."

Nazir doesn't fight in Pakistan but his men are a significant challenge for U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, where he sends his jihadists. The U.S. drone strike Thursday targeted a compound squarely in Nazir's area, used by one of his commanders named Malang, reportedly killing eight people.

Nazir, whose territory is a frequent target of the U.S. drone attacks, has expressed his anger over the strikes repeatedly and blamed Pakistani authorities for them, because of their close alliance with Washington. While Nazir has said that he has no quarrel with Pakistan, the strikes have soured his relationship with his country.

"Pakistan still has this idea of 'good' militants and 'bad' militants," said Christine Fair, an analyst at RAND Corp., a U.S. research center. "Baitullah is Pakistan's problem. For securing U.S. objectives in Afghanistan, Maulvi Nazir remains important."

Baitullah Mehsud, Pakistan's public enemy number one, leads the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, an umbrella group for the Taliban that's focused on battling the authorities in Pakistan. He doesn't send many fighters into Afghanistan, however. A branch of his Taliban group is fighting Pakistani forces in the Swat valley, which also is in the country's northwest, and he runs a "school" for suicide bombers at his Waziristan base, where he's said to have 10,000 armed men under his command.

Waziristan, part of the tribal area that runs along the Afghan border, has two major warrior tribes, the Wazirs and the Mehsuds. According to tactical wisdom going back to British colonial times, any military action must take on either the Wazirs or the Mehsuds, but tackling both at once invites disaster. Nazir and his ally in North Waziristan, Gul Bahadur, are Wazirs, whereas Baitullah is a Mehsud.

"It doesn't pay if you push all the Taliban into one corner and start fighting them. It's better to divide them," said Mehmood Shah, a former senior security official for the tribal area.

Shah said that the U.S. drone strike, the 19th this year, was "counterproductive." The controversial tactic has eliminated some midlevel al Qaida and Taliban leaders but also has killed hundreds of civilians. Pakistan says the drones infringe on its sovereignty.

The army's chief spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, declined to comment on the targeting of Nazir by the drones. He added, however: "Drone attacks anywhere are unhelpful."

Nazir and Bahadur, often labeled "pro-government Taliban," have remain focused on Afghanistan, but earlier this year they formed an alliance with Baitullah Mehsud, leaving their loyalties ambiguous.

The U.S. and other Western allies would like to see Pakistan take on all the extremists in its tribal area, not just those who are threatening the government. However, Pakistan long has had a strategy of backing some jihadist groups, including a former policy of supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan that some think continues.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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