Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Pakistani Taliban tells NYT they're on the march; only threat is from CIA's drone-fired missiles

As President Obama gets ready to meet with Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari and "seek assurances" from Zardari that Pakistan's nukes are safe, the Pakistani Taliban are still very aggressively on the march.

Recently, Taliban violated a "peace" deal whereby the central government had effectively abandoned the Swat district by moving into the neighboring Buner district just 60 miles from Islamabad, the capital. Under intense pressure from the U.S., Pakistani forces seemed to make an unusually forceful effort to beat them back over the past week. However, the government also appeared to be trying to reinstate the peace deal, if only the Taliban would make some show of holding up their end of the bargain.

Now, the Daily Times of Pakistan reports that "the Swat peace agreement crumbled on Monday as Taliban took over Mingora," the capital of the Swat district.

Meanwhile, The New York Times published a lengthy, fascinating account of interviews with a mid-level Pakistani Taliban organizer (described as a "logistics tactician"). This Talib was brimming with optimism about victory over both Obama's beefed up U.S. force in Afghanistan and the Pakistani government and army. He described for the Times a Taliban strategy for winning this two-front war that "relied on free movement over the border and in and around Pakistan, ready recruitment of Pakistani men and sustained cooperation of sympathetic Afghan villagers." He purported to be unconcerned with Gen. David Petreaus's new strategy or the 20,000 additional troops Obama is sending to the Afghan side of the conflict. But one thing did give him some pause:

The one thing that impressed him were the missile strikes by drones — virtually the only American military presence felt inside Pakistan. “The drones are very effective,” he said, acknowledging that they had thinned the top leadership of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the area. He said 29 of his friends had been killed in the strikes.

The CIA carried out at least 16 strikes with drone-fired Predator missiles inside Pakistan in the first four months of this year and 36 strikes in 2008. Dozens of al Qaeda and Taliban leaders and operatives have been killed, and their ability to operate freely in the tribal border areas has been suppressed. President Obama and his CIA Director, Leon Panetta, have made clear that they intend to continue making liberal use of this weapon.

You can be sure that these Predator attacks do not happen because the video fed from cruising drones stumble upon bad guys. It's a matter of stitching together intelligence gleaned from a wide range of sources, often with CIA field officers and their recruited agents taking considerable risks. So here's my question: why at this moment of serious crisis in Pakistan and Afganistan would President Obama want to take gratuitous steps that might crush CIA morale and pick a fight with the agency's experienced officers or send them running for the exits?

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