National Security

U.S. drones back up Pakistani military's domestic struggle

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The United States conducted two drone missile strikes in Pakistan's South Waziristan region Wednesday, killing at least 45 people, in the latest example of expanded direct American support for Pakistan's military offensive against key Pakistani insurgent leaders.

Pakistan routinely condemns U.S. missile strikes in the tribal region as a breach of its sovereignty. However, Wednesday's attacks, the latest in a series against domestic foes of the Pakistani government, indicated that the two governments are coordinating closely, experts said.

A Pakistani security official based in the South Waziristan area said that Wednesday's first drone strike hit a militant training center early in the morning and killed 10 people south of Makeen, the stronghold of Pakistan's public enemy number one, Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban. The second, in the afternoon, strike hit five vehicles heading toward Makeen from the east, killing 35.

The vehicles, likely to be double cabin pickups with gunmen sitting in the open at the back, were "completely burnt out," the security official said. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity, as he wasn't authorized to talk to journalists. Some reports put the death toll from the second attack at up to 50.

There have been at least six such strikes in the area since June 23, when a drone bombardment killed 80 people at a militant's funeral in South Waziristan. There also was a missile attack Tuesday in South Waziristan, reportedly killing 12 militants, including five foreign insurgents.

The U.S. attacks have focused heavily on the part of Pakistan's tribal area along the Afghan border that Mehsud controls. South Waziristan also is a base for insurgents who fight in Afghanistan and for al Qaida commanders.

The targeting of Mehsud is a departure from previous drone policy, which concentrated on killing Afghan Taliban and especially al Qaida operatives who were hiding in the tribal belt.

U.S. officials said that the tactic was highly successful in disrupting the midlevel and senior command of the terrorist organization, but there'd been much criticism in Pakistan that the drones went only after the enemies of the United States. This led to a conspiracy theory — which had a wide following — that Mehsud wasn't a target because he was an American agent.

"The frequency (of the drone strikes) has been increased in order to support Pakistan's military operations in South Waziristan," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, an analyst based in the eastern city of Lahore. "These operations help Pakistan contain Baitullah Mehsud."

Pakistani forces are in the final stages of an offensive in the Swat valley, and are poised to begin an operation in South Waziristan aimed at Mehsud and his network.

Pakistani forces have been preparing the battleground by sending in combat aircraft to pound suspected militant hideouts and defenses. The U.S. drones, which contain highly sophisticated technology for homing in on individuals, seem to be augmenting the attack.

Some think that the U.S. drones could represent the best chance of eliminating Mehsud, who's closely associated with al Qaida and is responsible for dozens of bombings in Pakistan. Around 45 drone strikes have taken place since last August, but they began to fire into Mehsud's territory only this spring.

"Surveys have shown that the people under attack, those in Waziristan, welcome the drones because they are attacking the right guys," said Farrukh Saleem, the executive director of the Center for Research and Security Studies, an independent research center based in Islamabad. "I'd say the drones have been very successful."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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