In January of this year, Pakistanis took to the streets to protest the deaths of eighteen civilians in a U.S. air strike on a village near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. This week Pakistanis angrily rallied again when eighty people died in an attack (BBC) on a madrassa that Pakistani leaders claim served as an al-Qaeda training camp. Pakistani officials say they gathered intelligence and carried out the attacks without U.S. help and that only terrorists were targeted in the attack. “Anyone who is saying that these were innocent Taliban is telling lies,” President Pervez Musharraf said, “They were all militants, using weapons, doing military training” (NYT).
Still, questions remain about what transpired last Monday at the madrassa. Despite Islamabad’s insistence that the operation only employed Pakistani military helicopters, some locals claim they saw an unmanned U.S. Predator drone fire at the religious school. The Counterterrorism Blog, an online forum of terrorism experts, cites a military intelligence source who confirms a Predator worked in concert with helicopters to launch the attack. Human Rights Watch labeled the strike “excessive” and called for an independent investigation.
Another question is whether the attack targeted any senior terrorist leaders. The January air strike missed its target, identified by U.S. officials as al-Qaeda deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, by a matter of hours. A Pakistani security spokesman said the latest attack targeted Zawahiri, along with Abu Ubaidah al-Masri—a man Pakistani officials link to the plot to down transatlantic airliners with liquid bombs this summer—though neither man was present (Times of London) when the helicopters opened fire. But a different government spokesman denied Zawahiri was the target (Bloomberg). Decapitations of an organization’s leadership, known as targeted killings, play an increasing role in U.S. counterterrorism efforts, though it’s not clear whether Pakistani officials have increased use of this method. U.S. terrorism expert Daniel Byman questioned the strategy’s effectiveness in a recent Foreign Affairs article.
President Musharraf finds himself sandwiched between domestic pressure to resist Western influence and international pressure to pursue terrorists on his territory. This, he told a recent CFR audience, makes his the most difficult job in the world. Though a partner in the “war on terror,” Musharraf’s critics—including Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and numerous NATO commanders—accuse him of turning a blind eye to the resurgent Taliban. Others rail against his alliance with the United States (Dawn). Intelligence analysts condemned a September peace agreement with tribal leaders in the North Waziristan as surrender to the terrorists. Pakistan may soon reach a similar agreement (NBC) with leaders in the Bajur tribal district, where the bombed-out madrassa was.
Meanwhile, Indian and British officials have accused Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, of aiding terrorists who operate in India, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Last month on Meet the Press, Musharraf conceded that retired ISI officers might be aiding the Taliban. Steve Coll, a journalist who has written extensively about the region, discusses ISI’s Taliban ties with Frontline.